Why is there sickness, pain, and suffering in the world?
When we talk about sickness, pain, and suffering and disease and those sorts of things and we try to reconcile that with the God of the Bible, what we’re really doing is thinking through the problem of evil. This is a little different version of the problem of evil because often times when we talk about evil, we’re talking about personal, human evil like murder and abuse and rape and theft, and those sorts of things. That’s something very good to be able to talk through and reason through from Scripture, but today we’re going talk about what you might call the natural problem of evil.
If you’re not familiar with the problem of evil (I mean, of course you are familiar with evil), here’s how we could state it formally: If God is all good and God is all powerful, then there would not be evil in the world. But there is evil in the world; therefore, God does not exist.
There are many different ways to talk about this. We’ve actually talked about this in the past multiple times like here, and here, but today I want to address how we should think through the existence of God with regards to natural evil. What might we put in that category? You could put in there sickness and disease and congenital heart defects and natural disasters and those types of things, which don’t necessarily have a personal cause behind them.
Oftentimes when we talk about evil, people view God as the problem. How do we reconcile – and I even said it this way earlier – how do you reconcile evil with God? But here’s the thing. God is not the problem that needs the answer here. In fact, if you get rid of God, you get rid of the only possible solution to the problem of evil, because if God does not exist, evil does not exist.
In order for there to be evil, there has to be good. In order for there to be good, there has to be God. God is the moral lawgiver. God is the standard of perfection. Evil is deviation from that. And so if there’s not God, there’s not evil. And I would also say, if there’s not God and there is evil, there’s no actual remedy for evil even if evil could exist, and I don’t think it could.
Natural Evil on Atheism
First, before we talk through this from a biblical perspective, I want to talk about it from the perspective of someone who’s not a Christian. Let’s say you’re an atheist and you have a view of the world that’s called naturalism, where only natural, material things exist. There’s no supernatural, so there’s no God, there’s no soul, there are no intangible sorts of things. Everything that exists is made of matter. This is a very old type of idea. It goes all the way back to ancient Greece.
Let’s say you hold that view. Can you actually say there’s this thing called natural evil in the world? I don’t think you can. In fact, I think you can only make sense of this idea of natural evil inside of a Christian worldview. So when someone else complains about natural evil, they’re borrowing from our worldview, our vocabulary, our way of organizing and making sense of reality, and here’s why I think that.
On an evolutionary worldview, can you really call a disease evil? I don’t think you can. If you’re consistent and someone is dying of a disease, and they’re suffering because of that, I think what you have to say is that person is less fit, and yes, that sounds horribly inconsiderate, but isn’t that what we’re talking about? A naturalistic worldview is built on this idea that evolution is true, the twin pillars of evolution being random mutation and natural selection. Natural selection is the process whereby the fittest individuals, by and large, survive and are equipped to pass on their genes and propagate such that over time, only the more and more fit survive.
And so, if someone is not surviving because of something that we might call natural evil, like a disease or heart defect or something like that, you can’t actually call it evil. Actually what you should be able to say is that that’s a “good” thing (and we’ll talk about that because that’s a very loaded term). But it’s a good thing that that person did not survive to pass on that less-than-helpful genetic characteristic where they weren’t able to survive as well as someone else. In other words, the terribly cold way of saying this is, in an evolutionary worldview, it would actually seem to be good that the weak die. It would be good that the weak do not survive, because the best thing for the species on an evolutionary worldview is that the fittest survive, and in fact, that’s what evolution is said to be set up to do, to produce only the fittest people.
So if a flood hits a city and a lot of people die, can the non-Christian call that natural evil? I don’t think they can if they’re being consistent. I think they have to say the less fit people didn’t survive. They didn’t think ahead enough to evacuate. They weren’t as strong of swimmers. They couldn’t break down the doors of their houses. They weren’t smart enough to live in community with people who can help them. Whatever. And yes, all of those things, I’m aware, sound entirely inconsiderate, and that’s not my view. However, if you’re being considerate on an evolutionary worldview, I think you would have to hold some perspective very similar to that, such that what we might be prone to call natural evil is actually nature’s way of helping us out.
But I’m sure you don’t know many people who hold that view, because most of the time, when someone holds a non-biblical worldview, that person can’t actually live in that worldview. They will end up necessarily borrowing from the Christian worldview.
So that’s the first point. If we’re analyzing this as a non-Christian, this whole category of natural evil doesn’t really make sense as it relates to human suffering, because it’s actually helping to weed out the weaker people. But more than that, on a non-Christian worldview, on a naturalistic worldview, natural laws are governing our universe. Now, I don’t think there are laws in this way that are prescriptive that set everything up. I actually think natural laws—from a Christian perspective—are descriptive of how God has chosen to sustain creation in the past, but that’s a separate point.
What we’re talking about here is how the non-Christian would look at this, and if all of creation, all of the universe, we’ll say, is governed by natural laws, how could you say that something was evil? The laws were just governing the natural world in a rational, consistent way from moment to moment in time, such that things ran as things were supposed to run. The “billiard balls on the table” just happened to bounce in such a way that we as humans would say we don’t like it. We might call it evil, but it isn’t actually evil, is it?
The billiard balls just happened to bounce off of each other in a certain way that we didn’t like, but nonetheless, that’s just governed by natural laws. So that’s not actually evil. That’s just a preference item. “I don’t like it” is the worst thing you could say on an evolutionary worldview. You can’t call it evil. And in fact, I would go a step further and say you can’t even really say that suffering is bad in an evolutionary worldview. This kind of dovetails with my first part about natural selection, how suffering, if it is weeding out weak individuals, then it would actually seem to necessarily be good.
But here’s why I made a note on that term “good” earlier. “Good” is a loaded term. “Good” is a moral term. So in a non-Christian worldview, how would it actually be good that people survive? Where would you get that idea that it’s good for the human race to survive? Where would that come from? Is that something we just decide as humans? It seems kind of odd and self-serving to decide that it’s morally good that we survive, when we’re the ones doing the deciding. So you can’t even make sense of it being an actual good for human beings to survive—that human beings have an actual moral value to their life—in an evolutionary worldview. So if it’s not good, and you can’t sustain that idea, then how would suffering be bad? It wouldn’t, once again.
So when we look at this from two or three different angles, natural evil, 1) is seen to not exist. And 2), it’s seen to not be a problem. And 3), if it is, it’s just seen to be a preference item based on an unsupportable standard of human value. What would ground the value of human life when we just came about from goo through the zoo to us? If evolution is true, we are just slightly more evolved animals who started out as stardust, and that’s all we’re actually made of now, so why does life have value on that worldview? It doesn’t.
So that’s the first point I wanted to look at. When we get this objection from a non-Christian, we can actually take the intellectual legs out from under them in their argument and show that they don’t actually have the right in their worldview to make this objection against Christianity.
Natural Evil on Atheism
But many Christians are also struck with this. How do we make sense of disease and suffering in adults or in children, and things like that? Why does this happen? I think we have to say on the front end, no explanation is going to be utterly emotionally satisfying, but I think we can get some biblical perspective on this that leads to a correct, gospel-centered, biblically grounded hope.
So why is there evil in the world? And I don’t mean for this answer to be a cop-out, but it’s because of sin. Personal, human evil, like murder, is definitely a result of personal sin, and why do people sin? They sin because it’s their nature, and why is it their nature? That goes all the way back to the fall in Genesis 3 when Adam, as our representative, sinned, and hence, all of his descendants inherited this, 1) sin guilt, but 2) a sin nature.
But what about natural evil? Where did that come from? Most of the time, disease and suffering and things like that, on a medical basis at least, aren’t necessarily attributable to an individual. Sometimes they are, but most of the time they’re not. We don’t know why these things exist or come about. But you know, we can actually trace these back to a result of the fall also, because when Adam sinned, God cursed him and cursed the world. It was his penalty. That curse of the world has made it such that everything has been tainted and corrupted by sin. Nothing is actually as it should be.
Paul says in Romans 8 that “The whole creation groans and suffers together until now.” Before that he says that “Creation was subjected to futility. Not willingly, but because of God, who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set free from the bondage of decay into glorious freedom of God’s children.” And you see, this is interesting here, when the Bible is speaking to those who are in suffering, whether it’s in Romans, whether it’s in the minor prophets, God doesn’t so much try to provide a rational and justification and itemized list of the reasons for why things are the way they are, but he points to a certain hope in the future: the fact that he will make everything right.
So why is there natural evil from a Christian, biblical perspective? Ultimately it traces itself back to the fall and God’s punishment, his just punishment, of the fall. When Adam and Eve sinned, as Greg Koukl said in his book, “The Story of Reality,” they broke the world. Ultimately that’s also because of God’s curse, his just punishment for his creatures, created to glorify him alone, instead glorifying themselves. He punished them and punished the world. But you know what? The world isn’t totally bad, is it?
We still experience and give love and joy and happiness and deep-felt satisfaction and community and all these types of things. The world is not totally bad. But it is broken, and because it’s broken, we are in a constant battle against its decay. Sometimes this is on a personal level. From the moment we are born, we are starting to die in some ways. Everything around us is actually tending toward disorder and decay. Even science says that. But Paul affirms this here. Creation is groaning. It’s been subjected to futility. Not willingly. God has done this.
And you might say, “Why has God done this?” And I think there are two quick reasons. One we’ve already covered, is because it was a just punishment for man’s sin. But more than that, because he will ultimately set it right and be seen to be glorious and just in doing so.
Paul says here, at the beginning of this section, which I didn’t read, “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.” Isn’t that just profound? He’s about to go on to describe the subjection of the world to futility, how it’s groaning, and it’s awaiting a change for something new that’s coming, and he’s saying, “You know what? In spite of all this pain and suffering, the best that’s coming is so much better than the worst is bad. The magnitudes don’t even compare.” And ultimately, later on, when he’s talking maybe more on a personal level, he says that his affliction is light and momentary compared to the everlasting, eternal weight of glory that is coming. So for the Christian, God sets ahead of us this certain hope that he will set all things right.
Jesus is the way by which he does that. We often talk about the very personal, individualistic work that Christ did on the cross in paying for my sins. “He took my name.” I’ve said this before, and it’s true, but we don’t often talk about how redemption, both cosmic and personal, is found in Christ. That Christ, by his work on the cross, set the ability for God to make all things new by his atonement. And so in the same way that Adam was our representative in sin and man was credited with that guilt and all who are in Christ find their guilt forgiven, Adam also sinned, and as a result of that, the world was cursed. Well, also as a result of the work of Christ, that curse will be no more.
John, writing in Revelation chapters 21 and 22, gives us a detailed metaphorical picture of the new heavens and the new earth that God is going to create. A new earth where there is no pain, where there is no sickness, where there are no congenital problems, where there are no hurricanes and no natural disasters and things like that; where everything that was wrong because of Adam is set right because of Christ. And you know what? That’s what we look forward to.
And so we don’t always have the answers in the here and now as to why things are broken and why things are bad and why they’re corrupted on a case-by-case basis, but we do have a hope built on confidence in Jesus Christ that God will set everything right. In the same way that our hope is in Christ for salvation, believing and trusting that he paid for our sins on the cross, we also place our hope in him that one day he will make every hurt right. He will wipe every tear, every body ailment will be healed, and we will be glorified together with him for eternity.
So I want to end with Paul’s words here from Romans 8:18, where he says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not comparable to the glory that will be revealed in us.” So at a base level, there is a glory that is coming that is better than the sufferings are bad. But more than that, he says that the glory will be revealed in us. God is transforming us through the sufferings of this world, both natural and manmade, into the image of Christ. And so while we shouldn’t be pain-seekers, looking for things to hurt us so God can build us up, we should take stock and trust in him that the things that do come are ultimately conforming us, along with his work, to the image of his Son; that is why we can be, and should try to be, joyous in all things. Not that all things are easy, but because for the Christian, all things are actively worked together for our good and our holiness.
So in summing this up, naturalism/atheism, provides no answer, and no way to understand the problem of evil. Christianity explains why it exists and ultimately what God is doing and is going to do about it. It makes so much more sense of reality than any other view. I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.