Preached on September 16, 2001 at First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga.
Every generation for the last sixty years has had an event occur that they will never forget. It is a bookmark on the hard drive of their memory. Those remaining from the World War II generation remember exactly where they were December 7, 1941, when they heard about Pearl Harbor.
For my generation, the boomer generation, the singular event we remember took place November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I still remember walking back from the library to my sixth grade class when a classmate came running down the hall screaming, "President Kennedy has been shot."
The buster generation had an event seared into their memory on January 20, 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in a ball of fire before a nationwide television audience.
Now the millennial generation has their own tragic event and date which will always remind them where they were and what they were doing when it happened — September 11, 2001, when the greatest single tragedy ever to hit this country occurred, now known as "America Under Attack."
We are confronted with the great question: "Why?" Evil has once more reared its ugly head to confront those who believe in God and to impassion those who don't. The problem of evil has been called the "Achilles heel" of Christianity. The question arises: How can a God who is all-powerful and absolutely good allow evil in His creation?
George Barna, the leading researcher of spiritual trends in the evangelical world conducted a national survey in which he scientifically selected a cross-section of adults and asked this question: "If you could ask God only one question and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?" The number one answer was: "Why is there pain and suffering in the world?"
Years ago, after survivors of the United Airlines flight 232 crash in Sioux City, Iowa, attributed their survival to God, an organization of atheists, known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, issued a call for secular newspapers to quit using "Bible Belt journalism."
Ann Gaylord, leader of the group said, "Every time a tragedy is reported our members must brace themselves for the inevitable. If there are survivors reporters will make sure 'God' will get the credit, but never the blame.... Why don't they ask these religionists who claim 'God' helped them, why 'He' let tragedies happen in the first place?" Referring to the United crash she asked, "Why didn't their omnipotent 'God' just fix the hydraulic system of United flight 232 and save everybody?"1
This question goes all the way back to the oldest book in the Bible. The first chapter of Job reads like this week's newspaper:
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house;
And a messenger came to Job and said, "The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, when the Sabeans raided them and took them away - indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, "The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, "The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, "Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young men, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!" (Job 1:13-19)
Substitute "terrorists" for Sabeans and Chaldeans, and a hurricane for the wind, and we have the same situation we face today.
As you're going to see Job asked the same question millions are asking today: "Why?" You will see how God Himself answers the question as I raise and answer three crucial questions.
Why Do We Suffer From Evil?
At first Job tried to keep a stiff upper lip, observing: Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (1:21) But after Satan was allowed to take Job's health away as well, he begins to cry out in chapter 3, and raise the question over and over — "Why?"
Why did I not die at birth? Why did I not perish when I came from the womb? (v.11)
Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? (v.12)
Or why was I not hidden like a stillborn child, like infants who never saw light? (v.16)
Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter of soul? (v.20)
Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, and whom God has hedged in? (v.23)
What Job is really asking is this: "Why did God allow this to happen?" In effect he was saying: "God where are you?"
Now we hit the crux of the question. If there is a God, and if that God is good, why is there evil in the world? Thousands of years ago the Greek philosopher, Epicures, put it this way:
God either wishes to take away evil, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able.
If he's willing but unable, he is feeble (weak), which is not in accordance with the character of God.
If he is able and unwilling, he is envious (wicked) which is equally at variance with God.
If he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious (wicked) and feeble (weak), and therefore not God.
If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable for God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?
That word, "why," is not just a question, it is really an accusation. In fact, the Hebrew word for "why," is not only a cry of sorrow, it is a cry of protest. It assumes that all suffering is unjust and that God's silence is inexcusable.
It is an age-old question. We're not the first ones to ask it, nor will we be the last. The prophet Habakkuk asked God, Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? (Hab.1: 3) The prophet Jeremiah challenged the Lord, saying: I would speak with you about your justice: why does the way of the wicked prosper? (Jer. 12:1)
I am going to tell you something that will probably disturb you, but it is the truth, nonetheless. Nobody truly and totally knows the full and final answer to the question, "Why?" Anyone that tells you they do is either ignorant, or arrogant, or both.
That's a real problem for us because we live in a "the public has the right to know" generation. We live in a society that demands an explanation for everything, and we want to be informed on everything from Jimmy Carter's hemorrhoids; to Ronald Reagan's colon; to George Bush's hatred for broccoli; to Bill Clinton's haircuts. We get frustrated because, though journalists and fortune-tellers and lawmakers operate by that policy, God does not. He operates strictly on a "need to know" basis.
It's interesting that every time tragedy strikes, we call God on the carpet and demand that He explain Himself, and He had better have a good reason for doing what He did. Well this next statement sounds hard, but it's still true. God is God — He doesn't need to explain His actions to anyone. It is interesting that for thirty-seven chapters in the book of Job, God is totally silent. He doesn't say one word to His servant Job. But then in chapter 38 God asks Job the one question to end all questions: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. (38:4)
What He said to Job, in effect, was: "You wouldn't even be here trying to ask me a question if I hadn't decided to create you to begin with." Then in Job 40:2 He drops the final bomb: Shall the one who contends with the almighty correct him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.
Even though I don't know any truly final answers to the whole problem of evil, there are some things I do know. I know that evil is real, and I also know that for evil to exist you must also admit that good exists, because without good there can be no evil. That also tells me that ultimately it must be good that there is evil, or evil would not exist. It was Augustine who said, "God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist."
Please understand that to say that it is good that evil exists is not the same thing as saying that evil is good. To say evil is good would itself be evil, and the Scripture plainly declares that evil is evil. But to say that it is good that there is evil is simply to declare the fact that God is good, and that His providence extends to all things including evil. In fact, God is sovereign even over evil and is able to bring good out of evil, and to use evil for His purpose and His plan for this world.
Don't miss the importance of that statement. The fact that God allows or ordains that there be evil, means He deems it good to allow it. He only ordains what He wills should take place; His will is perfect and absolutely good and righteous. If God wills that evil should exist, and it could not possibly exist if He did not will it, then we must conclude that in His counsel and purpose and plan, He has good reasons that evil should exist.
I freely admit that evil is a problem we have to face. But it is not fatal to the Christian faith. We must interpret the unknown in light of the known, not the known in light of the unknown; and what we do know is this: God does exist, and God is good. But in my mind that raises still another question.
Whom Should We Seek During Evil?
There are those who conclude that since there is evil in the world there can be no God, because a God who is all-powerful and totally good would not allow evil to happen.
Well, quite frankly, I do not see that as the dilemma that some people do. In fact, I draw comfort from that line of thinking, because those who complain that evil is a problem can only do so if they affirm the existence of that which is good. If you insist that evil is real, you must also insist that good is real. But if there is no God then you must not only account for evil, you also have to account for good.
My friend, the great apologist Ravi Zacharias, tells of a time when he was speaking at the University of Nottingham, England, when a very exasperated student stood up and attacked God with this question. Zacharias used that very question as an axe to chop the student's legs right out from under him. The student stood up and declared, "There cannot possibly be a God with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!" Then, with a smug look on his face, he then waited for Zacharias to respond.
Zacharias said, "When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?" The student said, "Of course." Zacharias continued, "But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?" This time the student very reluctantly said, "I suppose so."
So Zacharias said, "In other words, in order to have good or evil there must be a moral law, a standard by which to determine what is good and what is not." The student said, "You are right."
Zacharias then said, "If, then, there is a moral law, you must posit a moral Lawgiver. But that is Whom you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no moral Lawgiver, there is no moral law; if there is no moral law, there is no good; if there is no good there is no evil. I'm not sure what your question is!" The student then replied, "Well, what am I asking you?"2
You see, evil, in my estimation, does not say we should run from the idea of God, but we should run to the idea of God. You think about this. We never question the good things that happen to us, only the bad. Dr. M. Scott Peck, makes this observation: "It's a strange thing. Dozens of times I have been asked by patients or acquaintances: 'Dr. Peck, why is there evil in the world?' Yet no one has asked me in all these years, 'why is there good in the world?'"3
Let me ask the question another way. Why is it we blame God only for the bad things that happen to us? Why do insurance companies describe natural disasters and catastrophes as "acts of God"? We never question the positive points of life, only the bad. We are not amazed at God's goodness; we take that for granted, as though God owes it to us. Badness surprises us, goodness does not.4
Here's the point. To try to get rid of God and eliminate God because of evil, is to make the discussion totally unnecessary. We have problems with evil in this world not because of our unbelief, but because of our faith! The great British Bible teacher, Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, said it this way: "Men of faith are always the men that have to confront problems. Block God out and your problems are all ended. If there is no God in heaven then we have no problem without sin and suffering.... But the moment that you admit the existence of an all-powerful, governing God, you are face to face with your problems. If you say that you have none, I question the strength of your faith."5
Evil should not force you to turn away from God, it should force you to turn to God. Indeed that is always one purpose of evil. It not only challenges your faith, it changes your focus. C. S. Lewis once said, "God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."6
But this raises a question. To what God should we turn? Well, in my estimation, there is only one God we can turn to, and it's certainly not a God who would reward cowardly murderous attacks by a heaven surrounded by beautiful virgin women. No, the only God we can turn to is the God of the cross. It is the cross that tells me that God cares. It is the cross that tells me that God is good. It is the cross that tells me that God is love. It is the cross that tells me that God can even use evil for His good purpose. As a matter of fact, you will never make any sense out of evil whatsoever — indeed, you will never make any sense out of life — without the cross of Jesus Christ.
How can anybody worship a God in a world of pain who is immune to pain? If you ever go to a Buddhist temple, you will see a statue of the Buddha; his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile framing his mouth, a remote look on his face, totally detached from what's going on in the world. That is not the God I turn to. The God I turn to is a God whose Son was nailed to a cross, back lacerated, limbs torn from their sockets, brow bleeding from a crown of thorns, mouth dry, intolerably thirsty, forsaken by God the Father Himself for sins He did not even commit. That is the God that I turn to. Yes, there is a question mark about human suffering. But over it we can boldly stamp the exclamation point of the cross, which symbolizes divine suffering, and tells us that God does care — which raises our third and final question:
What Should We Say About Evil?
We must remember this one thing. When the sky is black, God is silent, and we are in the deepest throes of the darkest disaster, God is always in complete control. When God permits Satan to light the furnace, He always keeps His own hand on the thermostat. That's why He says to Job: Who then is able to stand against me? Who has preceded me, that I should pay him? Everything under heaven is mine. (41:10b-11)
Jesus Himself said something very interesting about evil. He told a parable of the wheat and the tares. He told how the enemy came during the night and sowed tares among the wheat. (Mt. 13:25) now "among the wheat" in the Greek is a strong expression meaning "all through the midst of the wheat, between the wheat, and on top of the wheat." The roots had become so inextricably intertwined that any attempt to pull them out would have torn out the wheat also.
So He said: No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, first gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn. (Mt.13: 29-30) Jesus said you can't root out the bad without rooting out the good. Wait until harvest when they will all be rooted out, and then separate the good and the bad.
Remember, the tares of evil do not worry the Master. He will take care of them in due time. Make no mistake about it, God's control is never interrupted. His sovereignty is never challenged. The world is His field and He will tend it properly.
How do I really know that is true? Because history tells us that God can take the greatest evil and bring out of it the greatest good. Exhibit "A" once again is the cross of Jesus Christ. Humanity cannot and will not ever experience any greater depth of evil than that exhibited by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet, because of the cross and because of the empty tomb, out of Satan's greatest strike against God, God brought out man's eternal salvation. Therefore, we know that God works all things out together for the good of those who love him. (Rom. 8:28)
Barbara Olson, the former federal prosecutor and TV commentator, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson, called her husband twice in the final minutes of her tragic final flight. In her first call her last words were, "What do I tell the pilot to do?" She was cut off. She called him back and again with her last words said, "What should I tell the pilot?"
Well, I tell you what I pray I would have told the pilot, as well as everyone on board that plane — "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." I believe more than anything this is God's wakeup call for the church to be more urgent about the business of making sure a lost world knows Jesus Christ as Lord.
I close with a final answer to the question I've raised with a poem entitled, "The Lord Knows Why."
I may not know the reason why
Dark clouds so often veil the sky,
But tho' my sea be smooth or rough;
The Lord knows why, and that's enough.
I may not know why I am led
So often in the paths I dread,
But trusting Him I'll press my way;
The Lord knows why, I will obey.
I may not know why death should come
To take the dear ones from my home,
But tho' mine eyes with tear be dim,
The Lord knows why, I'll trust in Him.
So tho' I may not understand
The leading of my Father's hand,
I know to all He has the key -
He understands each mystery.
Oh yes, He knows, the Lord knows why
These things are ordered from on high,
Tho' dark clouds may hide the sun
The Lord knows why, His will be done.
1 "News Report's Mention Of God Angers Atheists," Atlanta Constitution, August 12, 1989.
2 Ravi Zacharias, Cries Of The Heart, pp. 66-67.
3 Cited by Ron Dunn, When Heaven Is Silent, p. 67.
4 Ibid., p. 68.
5 Ibid., pp. 22-23.
6 Cited by Alister Mcgraff, Intellectuals Don't Need God, p. 104.
James Merritt is pastor of First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga, and president of the Southern Baptist Convention.