Why is there suffering?
Part 1- The Truth of the Matter

(sets up ten fish in a triangle, the biggest one toward the back.)

I bet you're wondering about these. I'll get to them in a moment.

There was once a snakelike creature who lived a very peaceful existance. He ate leaves and fruit and bothered no one. He lived in a nice little hollow spot in a large apple tree and was very content. Then one day, this creature became very ill. He became very sleepy and felt strange, somewhat painful things happening within his body. Then one morning, the worst thing imaginable happened. He woke up to find that he was almost totally paralyzed. He tried to move about, but the only thing he could do was make his now-stiff torso spasm like a jumping bean. Our friend was helpless. He could not eat, he could not groom, he could not defend himself should an attacker come along. No one knew of his plight, so no one came to his aid. Day after day, he lay there, suffering. Then one day, he found that he could move again. It was very difficult, for his skin had formed a hard shell from which he needed to break free. Yet when he did, he discovered that he had completely transformed. No longer was he slithery or snakelike. He now had six slender legs and four big, beautiful wings. His eyes were like new, showing him colors and shapes he had never seen before. His mandibles, when he flexed them, zipped together to form a tube. Instinctively, he knew that his dull diet of leaves would be replaced with sweet nectar. You guessed it. He was a caterpillar, and through his awful ordeal, became a butterfly.

Ever since the dawn of history, mankind has been faced with a conundrum of logic. God is in control. God is good. Therefore, the universe should have only good, right? So why is there suffering?

We can even go beyond that. How can a good god condone war? How can He say "thou shalt not kill" and then order a jihad against the caananites? Did God create evil? Is he responsible for evil? Why doesn't He do something to fix all the hurt in this world? If I'm following God, why am I still poor or sick or deaf or depressed? These are all valid questions.

The quick answer is that there is no one simple answer. There are many reasons why evil exists and no one reason adequately covers it all.

I'd like to start by saying that expressing concern over the reality of evil is not a sign of unbelief. It can be a CAUSE of unbelief, certainly. For example, a devout atheist recently reached the conclusion that there must be a god, but refused to accept the reality of the Judeo-Christian God, figuring that an all-powerful god must, logically, be responsible for evil's continued existance.

Before we tackle these questions, I'd like to take a look at some theories that others have come up with. These fish I've placed here... each one represents a theory concerning evil. We're going to take them out one by one until we get to the truth.

According to "Christian science" and vedanta teachings in hinduism, reality is good. Evil is an illusion. These religions believe that all is one divine mind and his ideas. Sin, sickness and death are but imaginings of humans.

Zoroastrianism makes nearly the opposite claim. The idea there is that there is not only a good god, but an evil one as well, exactly evil and opposite the good one, and that the two gods are perpetually at war. This is also the view of the cathars, who believe that the god of the old testament is evil while the god of the new testament is good.

Both the first philosophy and the second can lead to a third premise- that there is no real difference between good and evil. It's all in how you look at it.

Plato suggested another kind of duality. He suggested that nothing was truly evil, but that the universe is chaotic and God is only able to exert a finite amount of control over it.

A very popular theory throughout the ages is that all suffering is a divine judgement of sin. This was the view held by Job's friends and it was even held by the disciples in their early days.

The compliment to this philosophy is what I like to call "Verucasaltism". It says that if we don't have what we want, it's because we haven't laid claim to it. This philosophy says that if we are following God, there is no reason for suffering, since God wants only good for us.

John Hick proposes that God created humankind imperfect, but perfectable. To aid in his perfection, he created a world of both good and evil and placed us in it to grow. Hick proposes that because sin invites grace and grace invites spiritual growth, all humankind will eventually achieve perfection through this process.

Before we tackle these theories, I suppose we should begin by defining evil. Unlke today, "evil" had two meanings when the bible was written. The first, of course, is moral evil. To simplify matters, we can refer to this as sin. The second definition is harm or misfortune which is not necessarily connected with wrongdoing. The Lakota have a word for this: OTEHI. The closest word in english would probably be "suffering", which is what we're primarily concerned with. Some things, of course, are both.

Having said that, let's address the question: "Is evil real?" Is there a subjective difference between good and evil? Let's say someone punches you in the gut. Does it hurt? Of course it does. When something precious gets stolen, doesn't it cause you grief? Even if the thing isn't real, the pain it causes is. When a loved one declares that they do not love you anymore or when they are suddenly taken away, the pain we feel is very real. Otehi is real. As for whether there is a difference between moral good and moral evil, I'll defer to the experts...

Isaiah 5:20, Micah 3:1-2, Romans 12:9 & 21, Amos 5:14-15, Malachi 5:14-15. I won't quote them all now, but you can look them up if you like.

Isaiah, Micah, Paul, Amos and Malachi all preached the reality of moral good and the importance of pursuing it. All through the bible we are confronted with the consequences of moral evil, especially seperation from God.

Moral evil is real. suffering is real.
(takes two fish and swallows them.)

And there is a true difference between sin and goodness.
(swallows a third fish.)

So what about the theory that there is an evil god? For one thing, it is impossible to have contradictory absolutes. If two beings are not in complete concord, at least one is not a real god. C.S. Lewis points out in his book "Mere Christianity" that evil cannot exist without good. Pure evil would by definition be evil toward itself and therefore self-destructive. It is impossible to have an equal and opposite of pure goodness.

Deuteronomy 4:35 and 39 are just two examples which tell us of God's uniqueness.

35 You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other.
39 Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.
Although there are three members of the godhead, they constitute only one God, for they are in perfect unison. They alone are creator, authority and maintainer of the universe. The closest thing to an evil god there is would be Satan, and we know that he is a created being. He's just an angel who got a little too full of himself.

There is no evil god.
(swallows another fish)

So what about the cathars' belief that the god of the old testament and the god of the new are not the same? Well, we already established that there is only one God. Thus, if there is a discrepancy, it must mean change. Right?

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
God doesn't change.
(swallows another fish, leaving four covering the big one)

What about what Plato said? Is God finite? Matthew 19:26 tells us otherwise.

26 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

and Mark 13:36
"Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."

Now that's not to say that God can defy the laws of logic. Even He can't satisfy contradictory conditions. God has infinite power, but to give mankind free will, he had to make us capable of evil as well as good. He had to give us the freedom to choose evil if that is what we desire. Just because we have free will does not mean God is less than all-powerful. There will be much more on that later.

God is not finite.
(downs another fish, leaving four in all)

So... Evil is real. God is good. He is all-powerful, unchanging and without competition. Why, then, does He allow evil to exist instead of stomping it out? It must be for divine punishment, right? Evil must exist as punishment for sin.

The problem with this philosophy is that it's correct. But only partially. Some evil, that is otehi, is punishment for sin. This is demonstrated over and over in scripture. Nadab and Abihu were charred to a cinder for insulting God by offering unauthorized fire. Ananias and Saphira were struck dead for trying to lie to the Holy Spirit. Sodom and Gamorah were destroyed with meteors for years of depravity including but not at all limited to human sacrifice. Egypt was stricken with ten plagues for their enslavement and abuse of the Israelites. And the worst is coming, yet. Jesus and the prophets have promised a time of God's righteous wrath such as the world has never seen, not even in the flood.

But many times it is not. The entire book of Job concerns the suffering of a righteous man. His friends told him to repent of whatever sin he had committed, but time and again, he declared his innocence. At the end of the book, God demanded they apologize to Job because he truly was innocent. In the book of John, Jesus' disciples make the same mistake. On seeing a blind man, they wonder whether the man's blindness is a punishment on him or his parents. The Pharisees make the same mistake later in the chapter. Jesus states plainly "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." His blindness wasn't a punishment. It was to bring him to a place where he could act as a witness for God's grace and declare the messiah. TO THIS DAY his words cry out as a witness to all generations declaring that Jesus is Lord and through him, many have been brought to a saving knowledge of Chist.

Evil, that is otehi is not always a punishment.
(swallows a seventh fish)

The other side of the coin, as I said, is verucasaltism. I've named it after Veruca salt, the character from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" who had only to bellow "I want..." to be placated by her rich father. According to this philosophy, God is good and wants you to have good things. If you want something, you need only lay claim to it. Therefore, if you are sick or poor or whatever, it is because you have not asserted your rights as a rich brat... I mean child of the king.

The problem I have with this is that God doesn't want us to have good things. He wants what is BEST for us and nothing less. If we continue to look at the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we can see that materialism made Veruca a brat, but poverty made Charlie appreciate the importance of kindness and generosity. A little otehi, mixed with love, made him good enough to refuse to sell out to Wonka's enemy. Because of this, HE, not Veruca, became the heir to the Wonka empire.

It is true that misfortune breeds character, and for that, we can be thankful. More on that later.

In any event, misfortune is not always our fault.
(swallows fish number eight)

As you can see by my props, the truth is starting to show. So is my tummy, I imagine.

Misfortune builds character. Does that mean that God created evil for the purpose of building character? It may be true that God produces otehi. That's a topic for another time. Does God create moral evil? No. James 1 explains evil like this...

13 When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.
15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Another problem with the Hicks philosophy is that evil does not always lead to spiritual maturity. The notion that everyone will be saved eventually is a falacy and a heresy. The bible addresses the subject of Hell repeatedly. Jesus himself spoke more often of Hell than of Heaven. One thing that is clear- it is permanent. As early as Genesis 6 God declares "My spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal." When you die , your choice is made, and if you reject God, He's going to give you exactly what you've chosen- eternity without Him. That means no love, no goodness and no one working the environmental controls. I have seen it in a vision, and that vision is one of the reasons I became a pastor. I don't want anyone to have to experience that. Not even for the brief length of time I did.
(swallows fish number nine)

So, as Holmes was so fond of saying, once you eliminate the impossibilities, whatever remains, however improbbable, must be the truth. What have we learned?

Evil is real, but God is good. He is in absolute control. He is unchanging and without peer. He does not create moral evil. He does sometimes cause misfortune, either as punishment or for the sake of creating a greater good. sin only exists because we perverse creatures choose to inflict evil on one another, and if we choose evil, God will honor our decision, however terrible it may be.

But there is another way to look at that. Turn it backwards. Evil is real. Moral evil comes from our perverse choices. But God is caring enough to allow that evil to exist in order to change us. He took the otehi meant as punishment for our sins on himself in order to save us. That is because God is good. He is ultimate good, without peer or rival, and his goodness endures forever. He rules everything and we are his beloved children. Someday, He has guaranteed, we will live together in peace, with neither sin nor otehi.

And that is a reason to celebrate. Everyone help yourself to some broiled salmon.

This lesson on evil is far from over. I intend to go in depth and answer some of the questions posed at the beginning of the message in great detail, so I hope you'll all return next week. Until then, here is my challenge.

If you haven't accepted Christ as your saviour, do so quickly, because otherwise, you'll be in for misery in the next life, and that by your own choosing.

If you have, then you have something non-Christians don't. hat's the promise of 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.
You can know with a certainty that when bad things happen to you, they happen for a good reason. What I'd like you do do is add this truth to your joy. Keep it in mind throughout the week and get in the habbit of remembering it when otehi befalls you.

Pastor Oren Otter
January 28, 2006