As we all watched Hurricane Irma strike the western Florida coast, pounding it with high winds, rain, and storm surge, it brought to mind the question many ask in the face of such a disaster: “How can a good God allow such destruction and devastation?”
For the atheist and non-believer, the presence of such devastation is evidence that the God of the Bible, who is portrayed as both all-powerful and benevolent, does not exist.
This is the argument from the presence of evil. It is what Rabbi Kushner dealt with in his popular book: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner wrote the book after losing a child to a devastating disease. In it, he deals with the biblical portrait of God as both sovereign and good. Is God sovereign but not really good, or is he good, yet powerless to prevent evil? After much deliberation, Rabbi Kushner concludes that it is the latter: God is good but powerless to prevent what happened to his child. In other words, God wanted to prevent this evil but did not possess the power to do so.
That is certainly one way of dealing with evil, but it is certainly not supported by Scripture, which clearly presents God as both good and powerful. The book of Job makes this clear. Though God never explains to Job why he has allowed such devastation to touch not only his own family and possessions but also his body, he reveals himself at the end as the Mighty One who needs no explanation. Job is deeply broken before the presence of God and can only say, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Still, atheists and agnostics see the presence of evil and calamities as evidence that a good God cannot exist. It is the age-old argument from the presence of evil: If God is good he would not allow evil in the world; since there is clearly evil in the world, God (if there is one), can’t be good.
But if the presence of evil negates the reality of a good God, what does the presence of goodness in the world indicate? In other words, if evil negates God’s existence, goodness must affirm it. This is where the argument for atheism from the presence of evil breaks down. They (atheists and agnostics) see evil as an affirmation that a good God can’t exist. But if the presence of evil means that there is no good God, what does the presence of good indicate? If they are to be fair, it (the presence of goodness) should affirm the existence of a good God.
But most atheists and agnostics are not willing to deal with that question, choosing instead to only focus on the presence of evil. But, for the most part, we see only mostly good in the world. For example, while the hurricane in Florida touched many lives, the majority of people were untouched by this disaster. Randy Alcorn in his book If God Is Good points out the fact that since we “Don’t question good’s existence affirms we consider good the norm and evil the exception.” He explains more fully:
they are not the norm in our lives? We ‘get the flu’ because we
normally don’t have it. We break an arm that normally remains unbroken.
Our shock at evil testifies to the predominance of good. Headlines we
consider terrible wouldn’t be headlines if they described usual events.
At any given time, fewer people are at war than at peace. Even in the bloody
twentieth century, a person had less than a 2 percent chance of dying from war
or violent civil strife” (If God is Good, Randy Alcorn, page 120).
When atheists and agnostics raise this question of the presence of evil, they are really asking: “If God is good, why is there so much meaningless suffering in the world?” But the real question is, “How do we know that it’s meaningless?” When it came to the sufferings of a man like Joseph, it certainly seemed for much of his life that his sufferings were unjust and without reason. But that is only how it seemed to be from his perspective. Eventually, he saw that God had a definite purpose in his sufferings and that they weren’t meaningless.
While the Bible clearly indicates that evil and suffering exist and that sometimes God allows these to visit his people, they are not without purpose. The problem is, we don’t always understand their purpose. That is why one of the greatest promises we have from God in Scripture is found in that powerful statement, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). This calls for us to trust a sovereign God who alone knows what is best for us.
Is there not a devil who wants to do us unmitigated harm? Yes, there is, but we must always remember that he is God’s devil. Just this morning I read God’s words to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2: “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation” (Revelation 2:10). The Lord Jesus certainly allows the devil to test believers at Smyrna, but it is for God’s purpose. He is a real devil, but he is on God’s leash. It was God who allowed the believers at Smyrna to be tested.