FAQs from skeptics / non-Christians
This question has been asked in many different ways by many honestly hurting and struggling people throughout history; and, like any question as deep and ubiquitous as this, there are no pat answers that adequately address all the real issues behind the asking of it. However, I think there are a few unexpressed assumptions underlying the question which, when exposed and answered, help make sense of the problem of inexplicable, widespread suffering and death. To deal with these assumptions, I'd like to consider what the question presupposes logically; what it presupposes about God; what it presupposes about people and what it presupposes about moral knowledge.
Logically, the question may be turned into a proposition with these basic elements – major premise: a sovereign, people-loving God would always be able and willing to do things in the best interest of people; minor premise a: slaughtering people is never in their best interest; minor premise b: God has slaughtered millions of people throughout history; conclusion: God is not a sovereign, people-loving God.
On the face of it, this seems like watertight logic; but the premises assume too much. Consider the first premise: would a sovereign, people-loving God really always do what was in the best interest of all people? Only if you further assume two things: that the best interest of people must always be his highest, ultimate end; and that doing what is in the best interest of one person is never contraindicated by the best interests of another person. However, both of these implicit assumptions are fallacious. The bible shows many ends towards which God works; and although doing that which is best for the people he loves is an immensely high and oft-emphasized end, it is not the only one. And some of the other ends towards which God works – displaying just wrath against sins, for instance – simply do not allow for such a glib and all-inclusive expression of God's love as, “Of course he could never destroy anybody if he's loving!”. He is loving, yes. But he's also righteous, holy, angry at sin, etc.
Consider the next implicit assumption: that if God were to do what was in the best interest of one person, it would never involve the slaughter of another person. But what if a person's family member or friend was horribly wronged by another – raped or murdered, say – and that person went to the judge for justice. Would the judge be acting in the best interests of this wronged person if he said, “I'm too loving to punish this wicked man”? Of course not – what is in the best interests of the wronged person – what would be the loving thing to do for him, in the highest sense of the word – would be to give him the justice that he rightly desires against his adversary. Not to mention, it would be more loving to all the other potential innocent victims to keep this guy locked up. Although Christianity is rightly known for non-resistance and being willing to return good for evil, it is not as widely understood that this Christian willingness to forego vengeance is tied up with the certain knowledge that one day, God himself will fully avenge them (see Rom. 12:19; Rev. 6:9-11). So then, God may be loving, but he may still destroy because he is also holy and just. Similarly, he may be loving, but he may still destroy because it is in the best interest of one beloved party to destroy another offending party.
Also please note that the questioner has a presupposition that moral evil actually exists. How does he know that? And by what authority do they declare that their morality it as valid for all people? If it were a mere preference then they could keep the virtue to themselves, but when they impose it on others they must believe that their morality is always universally valid. However, if there is no self-revealing God then such ideas are nonsense or social constructs and ultimately meaningless. If we are merely chemicals and nothing more then really, the Jews genocide of the Canaanites is no different than a day with the kids at Disneyland. Matter and chemicals do not care.
The question gets a little more complicated when pressed to the next level: “All right then, perhaps I can see why it would not be out of step with love to destroy a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer, but what about when it is good, innocent people who are destroyed?” This question gets to the heart of the Christian religion, and only finds its perfect answer in the crowning event of the Christian faith, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; and to plumb the depths of the answer would take many lifetimes of many scholars. But let it serve as a sort of first answer, or at least an inducement to study out the multi-faceted Christian explanation of the problem of the suffering of the righteous, to consider that those who have been the most deeply acquainted with the Christian faith, and who have undergone the greatest sufferings for no wrong of their own, have surprisingly been the most joyful and ready to endure those unjust sufferings. Now, this of course is not an answer in itself; but it indicates that millions of people, and by all accounts sane, happy, and well-adjusted people, have actually found great purpose and peace in suffering unjustly at the hands of others. The answer they have found could not just be some sort of academic, logical answer, therefore, but something real enough really to matter in the really bad things of life.
The logical explanation to this conundrum of Christians happily suffering in unjust affliction requires the unearthing of another implicit assumption: that being slaughtered, or wronged unjustly, could never be in the best interest of the wronged person. Now, at one level, of course, it's not in anyone's best interest to suffer unjustly. If so, causing this sort of suffering would not really be wrong at all – it would be like what the producers of a horror movie are doing when they make a scary film just because there are persons out there who are perfectly willing to watch it since they enjoy the frightening thrills it gives them. If Christians enjoyed being wronged in this way, it would drastically minimize the reality of the wrong being done to them. But the fact is, it is not a masochistic sort of joy that they have in the midst of suffering – they really suffer, they really hurt, they shed real tears of sorrow when bereaved of their loved ones, they know the terror and piercing pain that any normal person must feel when in the midst of torment and torture. Yes, the destruction is real, and yes, it is very hateful and undesirable.
However, what is overlooked is that something truly bad could be used for an even greater good. Suppose a person were diagnosed with cancer and had to go through surgery to remove the tumor: it would be an unpleasant ordeal; there would be real pain; the surgeon would really have to cut through living flesh with a cruel scalpel; and yet, when the desired end is kept in mind, the cruel means seems merciful and loving. Even if the cancer patient is too young to understand why such cruel things are being done to her, those who can see more than she does will rightly know that the process is loving; and someday, she too will understand and be glad that she was forced to go through the unpleasantries, even when she would not have consented to it at the time, because there was a good purpose to the inflicted sorrow. Christians do not rejoice in pain like masochists; they rejoice like cancer patients whose disease was discovered early enough to ensure a complete recovery after the fleeting pain of surgery. They rejoice because they know that sorrow is a necessary pathway to a greater and more lasting good (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Mat. 5:4; John 16:33). Even Jesus, whose person and work is the one great theme of the bible, endured the most unjust torment in the history of the world with joy – but why? Because he knew, by the eternal plan of the Almighty Father, that it was designed for a greater glory and joy, which would be his for all eternity (Heb. 12:1-2). He was willing to go through unjust pain out of love for those who actually deserved the pain; and this was for the dual end of spreading free love and goodness to others (because God really is love!); and likewise of winning something he himself would enjoy – infinite glory and the eternal love and friendship and adoration of millions of grateful people in a new, redeemed world. In the same way, Christians who suffer unjustly are full of joy that they can follow in the footsteps of Christ, both because their sufferings may be the means used to point others to salvation, and thus spread the love of Christ that they themselves have known; and also because they know that their own reward in heaven for enduring those sufferings will be unspeakably great (Mat. 5:11-12).
If what is implied by the question at hand were true; if, that is, even one truly innocent person were forced to suffer wrong for no purpose, without being compensated more than adequately for it, then I would be the first to join the ranks of them who condemn Christianity as a great farce and fraud. As we will see in a minute, there really are no innocent persons before God; but I do not say that to minimize the unspeakable wrong of unjust suffering. I don't have all the answers, and I don't know why a helpless child may suffer so horribly as some helpless children do suffer, but I know that God will not allow any senseless suffering to go unavenged, for one thing; and he will not allow any person to suffer more than he deserves, without causing that suffering to spring up a thousand-fold in the fruits of a greater and more eternal joy that would not have been possible without the suffering.
This brings us to the second set of underlying presuppositions we mentioned at the beginning: those about God. The first implicit assumption is this: if God is truly loving, he will never do anything that is not for the ultimate good of anyone. But as we already mentioned, the fact is, although God is indeed loving, he has other attributes as well, that exist in perfect and harmonious union with his love. For instance, God is also a God of holy wrath and righteous vengeance; and because of that, he will destroy those who hurt his beloved children. He hates hands that shed innocent blood and lips that sow discord among brothers (see Prov. 6:16-19); he abhors the bloodthirsty man and is angry with the wicked every day (Psalm 5:4-6). Because he loves his children, he abhors those who senselessly destroy them, and he will bring fierce wrath against them someday. And because he justly loves his own glorious Name, he will bring fierce wrath against those who fling opprobrium upon it by their words and deeds. So then, far from his justice being at odds with his love, they actually work in tandem – his wrath against sin both avenges those whom he loves when they wrongly suffer and also ensures that the glory of the God who is their portion will shine all the brighter, for their joyful adoration, throughout eternity. Thus, his very wrath lovingly avenges and vindicates them, and lovingly provides an eternal reward for them.
The ultimate expression of this harmony may be seen in the life of God's own beloved Son. Since God loves his eternal Son perfectly, he will destroy with perfect hatred those who finally and irrevocably set themselves against both him and those who belong to him. Any formulation of the problem that does not take into account the fact that God's love for his Son and his people involves the destruction of their enemies, for the glorification of his own Name and Power, in order to win a greater love from all the redeemed whom he loved from the beginning, ignores very widespread biblical themes and misses a necessary component for answering our question (see Ex. 3:16-22; 6:2-8, for one example).
The final presupposition that we will consider is what the question assumes about people; and that is, that at least some people get bad things they don't deserve without ever being satisfactorily compensated for their suffering; but that is a premise which is patently false. The clear testimony of the bible and unavoidable conclusion of experience is that all people are tainted and broken in many deep ways. To underscore this point, just reconsider the original question – why has God slaughtered so many persons? But the fact is, not only has God slaughtered "many," he has taken the life of every last person on earth. Every person is subject to death and it is ultimately God who has taken the life of each one. Which goes to show that the human condition really is worse than many people wish to imagine. True, some people express their sinful natures far more wickedly and drastically than others, and as sure as God is just, an Adolf Hitler will receive a commensurately worse punishment than the hard-working farmer who never ate what he didn't work for and freely gave to all who were in need. Is this farmer still broken in many ways and a sinner? Yes, in ways that we are not capable of understanding, all of us have spurned and despised God's person and laws, even from the womb, and this is a bigger deal than we can possibly imagine (see Psalm 51:5; Rom. 3:9-20; 5:12-21). But he is not a Hitler and he will not receive a Hitler's punishment. When he does stand before the righteous God, he will have no room to complain that his punishment is too great.
But what is so amazing is that God's love and mercy goes infinitely beyond justice in bringing good to those whom he has chosen to give to his Son, as an eternal reward for His own unjust suffering at the hands of the wicked. From a field of sinners deserving only judgment, God has called out innumerable multitudes to give to them nothing but a grace and mercy so vast that every difficult thing that enters their lives will without fail be put to some use of greater and eternal joy for them (Rom. 8:28-39). Even the worst sinner who faces God's righteous judgment will not be able to question God's love – his grace and long forbearance, which he had constantly rejected until it was too late, will be starkly evident. How much more will the sinner who was freely forgiven be able to testify of God's love? And included among those giving the most powerful voice to divine love will be those who in their lives suffered the deepest for the least cause.
In sum, this age-old question arises from realities that are nuanced and difficult, but pervasive and poignantly real. People really do go through deep hurts that really are unjust and inexplicable; and it really is intensely painful to go through those things, and difficult to understand why. The pat answers we've all heard cannot satisfy a person in that situation. It will not help to hear, “Well, God just didn't want to violate the free will of the person who raped you”. It will not help to hear, “Why not just focus on all the positive things in your life?”. It won't ultimately help to hear, “Well at least you're not getting everything you deserve” (although that answer has part of the truth in it, at least, and will help those who already know the rest of the truth in some measure). But it's still true that some people are more wicked than others, and those more wicked people take advantage of and hurt the relatively more righteous. Just as it's true that “natural” (i.e. divinely ordained) disasters kill tender infants and inveterate sinners alike. We may not understand why so many of these bad things happen all around us; but if we are willing to give an honest look at the God who revealed himself perfectly to humanity on the Cross of Calvary, we will have so powerful a testimony to God's great love, that we will be able to trust him in any circumstance. It was because of love alone that the Father put the innocent Son to torments for the just payment of the penalty of the sins of those who had hated him. It was by free grace and love alone that he freely forgave them, made them holy, and continues to do everything necessary to give them eternal joy in his presence. It is only when we look at how that righteous and wrathful and merciful and loving God, even when he was lovingly saving a sinful people, was also destroying their ultimate enemy, the devil, and giving a sobering testimony to the eternal torment of all who continue to refuse his proffered mercy – it is only then that we can actually find answers that address every part of the painful reality without denying or making light of any of it.
Because the question really is so difficult, not just in the way of an interesting logical riddle, but in a way that bleeds with real human hearts and hurts, finding an answer that actually makes sense of everything is a stunningly hopeful thing. Maybe it still won't make perfect sense, but enough sense that it is sensible to trust the one who has provided the answer, just like we can trust a proven doctor to perform a surgery when we don't know all its ins and outs. And no other religion can find any real answer that's not just a denial of reality, or a minimization of justice and vengeance, or a stifling of mercy and love. Only the Christ who came once to suffer for the sins of his people that he might redeem them, and who is coming a second time to deal out eternal tribulation to those who hate him and them, but rest and eternal joy to all who trust in him (2 Thes. 1:5-12), can bring all the painful realities of a fallen and broken world to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Even if we do not understand why everything happens, we can look to such a One and trust that he knows all and will bring it all to rights.
Here are more FAQs from Skeptics, Lord willing, coming soon....