Talking to Students About "Acts of God"
A powerful earthquake strikes western China, causing hundreds of buildings to collapse and killing more than 80,000 people. A tornado strikes the small farming community of Spencer, South Dakota, erasing it from the map.
Insurance companies have a name for such tragedies; they call them "Acts of God." And they are right, of course; God Himself says that He "hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm" (Nahum 1:3) and that He can and does make the earth tremble (Isaiah 24:17−20; 64:3).
Some Christians have the idea that when things they like happen, that is a blessing from God; but when things they do not like happen, that is the devil opposing them. Any teacher who has led students in a prayer meeting has heard talk that implies this view. But it is simplistic at best. History is providential; God directs it. And that includes the things that do not work out so well for us, even horrifically, just as much as the things that do.1
That thought raises some very tough questions. The most obvious, of course, is "Why did God let this happen?" But that question is not really a request for reasons; it is really a cover for a series of much more direct questions:
- Would a good God really do something like this?
- Shouldn’t He have stopped this from happening?
- Do I really want to serve a God like this?
This is The Big Question, the one that has troubled believers for centuries. It is the one that unbelievers most commonly present as the basis for their unbelief. It is usually called simply "The Problem of Evil": If God is both great and good, why is there evil?
- Is God really not great enough to stop it?2
- Is God unwilling to stop it and thereby really not a great person?3
- Is evil really just imaginary?4
- Or is there no God at all?5
The problem is compounded by ineffective attempts to answer it. Richard Dawkins records the response of an atheist Oxford professor to a colleague who suggested that God allowed the Holocaust in order to give the Jews a chance to be an example of endurance through suffering: "May you rot in hell."6
So is the problem of evil unsolvable? How do we guide our students through this difficult minefield? What will we say after the next tornado or hurricane or earthquake?
An attempt to deal with the problem of evil is called a "theodicy," or an attempt to justify God’s ways to men, as Milton put it.7 We should start by observing that God does not need our help; He is just—in fact, He is the very definition of just—and He is wise, powerful, and good and so can take care of Himself in the face of attacks by His greatest enemies. History is filled with examples of God’s using those very attacks to accomplish His own good purposes. The most obvious example of that, of course, is the crucifixion—a heinous crime perpetrated by evil men driven by evil supernatural forces (Luke 22:3, 22; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28)8 but one that resulted in the provision of salvation to all who wished to come.9
But most Christians have an inherent sense that we, as stewards of the grace of God, should be ready to defend His honor in the face of misunderstanding or even outright hostility. (The Bible confirms this sense in 1 Peter 3:15.) As evangelists, we should be ready to use a bridge collapse or a flood as an opportunity to present God’s grace—and often that means supporting the assertion that God is good even though sometimes it does not look like it.
The Biblical Data
One should begin, of course, with what the Bible says. Many Christians are disappointed that the Bible not does have a more clearly organized—according to Western standards—discussion of the subject; some are surprised that the writers of the Bible do not really seem to care much about it.
While it is true that theodicy is not a driving theme of Scripture—though the goodness and righteousness of God are often stated and even more often demonstrated—there are a number of passages where the Scripture devotes some space to the fact of evil and the apparent unfairness of it all.
The first passage that occurs to anyone familiar with the Bible is the book of Job. Here are the musings of a man facing disaster through no fault of his own. Three other men in the Bible—Joseph, Daniel, and Habakkuk—also help us to learn from "unjust" treatment. Then there are passages that raise the question directly: Psalms 1, 37, 73; Ecclesiastes; and Jeremiah 12. In Romans 9, in the context of election, Paul obliquely raises the question as well. Together these passages direct our thoughts along several specific lines:
- God is sovereign (Job 38:1ff; Romans 9:19ff); He can do as He pleases and owes no one an explanation.
- As fallen creatures, we deserve evil, not good (Jeremiah 12; Romans 3); so in one sense evil is not really a "problem"; it is what we should expect.10
- We are limited in our knowledge as well as in our ability to understand what we do know (Job 38:1ff). Thus, we should expect to be puzzled by many things in God’s will.11
- God, who is good by nature, works out His providential plans for good, even though the path to that good end is often very difficult (Joseph, Daniel).
- Evil is directly caused by sin, not by God, and He will make these things right before the end (Psalm 1:6).
- He often chooses not to answer our questions, thereby indicating that He wants us to trust Him (Psalm 37:3; Ecclesiastes 12:13; Daniel 3:17−18; Habakkuk 2:20; Romans 9).
- It is our relationship with God that enables us to trust Him in the dark times (Psalm 37:4—5; 73:16—17).
- We can gain confidence during the times we do not understand by recalling God’s consistent record of goodness in similar situations in the past (Psalm 78).
- When we suffer, we are experiencing what Christ Himself has already gone through (1 Peter).
The Standard Theodicies
Believers throughout history have approached the problem of evil in several ways. What follows are a few of the most common.12
- Evil as Necessity. God wanted to create beings who could have a relationship with Him; but for that relationship to be meaningful, these beings cannot be robots; they must have the ability to choose. And that necessarily means that they will be able to choose evil. And since they are the ones who have chosen, evil is not "God’s fault." Some observe that in this scenario God is then bound by logic outside of Himself; if He wants one thing,He must put up with something else that He does not want. And that sounds inconsistent with omnipotence. 13 Others observe that in places in the Bible—such as Romans 9—where one might expect the free-will defense to be used, it conspicuously is not.14
- Evil as Grace. Some kinds of evil, most obviously pain, serve as warnings of danger and thus help to protect us—for example, we quickly snatch our hands from a hot pot, thereby avoiding serious injury. The problem with this idea is that it is at best only a partial solution. How does an earthquake protect us? And could an omniscient, omnipotent God not have designed warning devices that would not injure us in the process?
- Evil as Foil. We are designed to live eternally in a perfect environment. Part of the joy of that environment will be the stark contrast between it and what we lived in before. Sin, pain, and death, then, serve as something for us to escape, and they thereby increase the eventual joy. In the meantime, they increase our yearning for that future world that will be free of the sorrows of this one.15 Again, this answer is insufficient. What about those who do not escape? And is it really necessary for us to suffer the consequences of sin in order to appreciate the joys of eternity? Do the unfallen angels not appreciate those joys? Doesn’t God?
The Role of Relationship
A major inadequacy of the standard theories is that they tend to treat the problem of evil philosophically, objectively, abstractly, impersonally. There’s a place for that kind of investigation, of course, but limiting ourselves to that approach omits a key factor for us: God is a person Who has designed us to have a relationship with Him. And that changes both the way we investigate and the standard of proof.
Let me illustrate what I mean by using an illustration from Charles Ryrie.16 Suppose I come home from work a few minutes early and find a strange car in my driveway. As I get out of my car and shut the door, a man I do not recognize comes out my front door, expresses horror, jumps into the car, and drives away, squealing the tires. What do I conclude?
In fact, there are two directions my thinking can go. I can conclude that my wife is seeing another man. Or I can conclude that she is planning a surprise party for me and that the party planner just got caught leaving the house.
Which option will come to my mind first?
It depends entirely on the state of my relationship with my wife. If we are close and the relationship is healthy, I will tell myself to act surprised when the party starts. If we are not, my thoughts will turn in a darker direction.
So what do we conclude when God does something that looks suspicious? It depends entirely on the state of our relationship with Him. If we know Him well, we trust Him; and if we do not, we don’t.
That means that when you or your students express distrust about what God is doing, you are making a statement about the health of your spiritual life.17 As a teacher and counselor, you need to bring more into that discussion than philosophy and abstraction; you need to turn to questions about the relationship and to solutions for spiritual health.18 In the end this is a devotional question, not merely a philosophical one. Sometimes we just need to trust Him—not blindly, because He has given us ample reasons to trust Him, but we need to trust Him nonetheless.
Anyone who wants to discuss this matter with a skeptic or even a sincerely questioning seeker needs to prepare himself well. Of the many books written on the subject, the most helpful for the Christian school teacher, in my opinion, are as follows:
Adams, Jay Edward. The Grand Demonstration: A Biblical Study of the So-Called Problem of Evil. Santa Barbara: EastGate, 1991.
Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990.
Frame, John M. "Apologetics as Defense: The Problem of Evil," 2 chapters in Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994.
Ham, Ken, and Carl Wieland. Walking Through Shadows. Green Forest, AR: Master, 2002.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. London: Centenary, 1940.
Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. Why Does God Allow Suffering? Wheaton: Crossway, 1994.
2 This is the view proposed by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his popular work When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon, 1981). It is also popular among certain liberal theologians, most especially adherents to process theology, or the doctrine of an evolving God, and its distant cousin open theism. Of this view, John Frame well writes, "A nonsovereign god is an idol of conventional wisdom, not the absolute personality of Christianity." Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 154.
5 This is the view of the leaders of what I call "the atheist revival." The most active recently are Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (London: Free Press, 2006); and Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Random House, Inc., 2006); and Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).
6 This defense is a variation on Leibniz’s "best possible world" approach—that there must be evil and its accompanying suffering if there is to be victory over it and the joy that comes from such victory. It has been observed in reply to Leibniz that God did create a world that was "better than" this one and that was not marred by sin (Genesis 1), as He will do again in the eternal state (Revelation 21—22). Thus, the current world cannot be "the best possible" one.
11 And as I often tell my students, this is the God we should expect. Finite minds studying the infinite God should expect to run out of intellectual horsepower at some point. If we could understand God completely, we would have to suspect that He was the creation of a finite mind.
13 Defenders of the view reply that God is consistent with this logic not because he is bound by it, but because it is His nature to be logical. Thus He conforms to the principles of logic for the same reason that He is good, or true, or unchanging.
15 This is actually one variation of a broader view, sometimes called the "greater-good" view: that God has determined that allowing evil into His universe will result in greater good in the long run than not doing so. One of these "greater goods" often suggested is the moral development of the soul—"no pain, no gain." Another, obviously, is salvation—though not of all—and the greatest good, as the Westminster Catechism reminds us, is the glory of God.
17 I am not suggesting that anyone who doubts God is spiritually dead or even spiritually sick. In times of great crisis, great saints have great doubts and express great sorrow and frustration. We are not yet glorified. But when the believer’s first instinct is consistently to distrust God’s motives and to doubt His goodness, his relationship with God is pathological.
18 I have written before about the means of grace, the key to a spiritual exercise program. "Misplaced Priorities," Teacher to Teacher 9:1 (March 2005), 2.
About Dan Olinger
Dan Olinger is Chairman of the Division of Bible at Bob Jones University.