Things That Are Not Evil
Why is there evil in this world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Atheists think they have an answer: Due to the presence of evil in the world, atheists say, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God cannot exist.
Christians also struggle with this. Christians believe God is love. God demonstrates His for us love again and again. God loves people so much that He sent His Son into the world to die for us. God is omnipotent. If He sacrificed His Son to redeem us, why can’t He do something about evil?
What is evil? Let’s begin by defining what evil is not. Is evil the same as pain, suffering, or death? Not necessarily. Let’s look first at pain.
Pain Can be Good
Pain can be helpful. It warns us of danger. Pain lets us know when a change is needed. Say a cook accidentally touches a hot burner on the stove. Pain tells him to move his hand quickly. And he does.
Physical pain is important. Philip Yancey talks about this in his book Where Is God When It Hurts? Yancey asks why we go to the doctor. Often it’s because we are in pain. Pain tells the doctor where we hurt. Pain warns us of a heart attack or appendicitis or a broken arm or leg.
What if there were no pain? Would that be a good thing? Yancey tells about his visit to a leper colony. Leprosy often is mentioned in the Bible. Today it is called Hansen’s disease. One symptom of the disease is the loss of fingers, toes, and other extremities. As the disease progresses, feet and hands turn into stumps. Noses and ears also appear to decay. Sores break out on a leper’s arms and legs.
For centuries, doctors thought the disease caused the leper’s flesh to decay. But in the last few decades scientists made a startling discovery about leprosy. Leprosy itself does not cause decay. The bacteria that causes leprosy only deadens nerves in the extremities of the body.
Why does a leper lose his fingers and toes? Because he cannot feel pain in these parts of his body. When his fingers or toes are cut or burned or scraped or crushed, the leper feels no pain. Pain does not warn him when these body parts are in danger. As the years go by the leper literally rubs or cuts or scrapes off parts of his extremities. Yancey calls this “painless hell.”
Painful events in the world awaken us to the need for change. God also can use pain to get our attention. Christian scholar C. S. Lewis wrote:
Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
Pain is not always a bad thing. It warns us of danger. It motivates us to change. Pain tells us when we need help. Pain is not pleasant. But it is not evil.
But what about suffering? It’s kind of like prolonged pain, isn’t it? Why would a loving God keep us in prolonged periods of pain?
The Many Faces of Suffering
Suffering takes many forms. Physical suffering may be the most obvious. Many people suffer from chronic pain. Physical pain is commonplace. It comes in many forms. Arthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatism are just a few common sources of pain. Some doctors and nurses spend their entire careers in the business of managing pain.
Loss also results in suffering. The death of a loved one is one kind of loss. Someone said a person’s life is the story of one loss after another. People spend their lives building relationships, reputations, or even wealth. We can lose all this in a moment.
Remember the man Job from the Bible? He lost his entire fortune and all of his children in one day. His children were killed in a tornado—a so-called “act of God.” A few days later he lost his health. He was covered with boils. We was suffering. But on that day Job said,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there.
By faith Job followed his statement with this truth:
“The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1: 21, NAS)
Privation causes suffering. Job was deprived of his children and his possessions. Few people experience suffering on this scale.
Privation comes in many other forms. We need a lot of things in order to live. We breathe air. We have to eat and to drink. Without a regular supply of these substances we will die. We need sleep. To thrive we need the right environment—not too cold or hot or wet or dry. We also have health needs. If we are deprived of things we need, we suffer.
Suffering and loss can be devastating. How we respond to these life stressors is even more important.
Suffering is not all bad. It helps bring positive changes to a person’s character. Even Nietzsche knew this. He said, “That which does not kill us only makes us stronger.” The Bible expresses this concept in Romans 5: 3-5
Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance [produces] character, and character [produces] hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Suffering also is not naturally evil. But suffering, as well as pain, can be caused by evil. Think of events that took place during the Twentieth Century. That Century was filled with men who did evil. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Chairman Mao Zedong were some of the worst.
Think of the suffering caused by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Eleven million people were murdered in Nazi prison camps. Six million of these people were Jews. Their only “crime” was being Jewish.
Stalin withheld food from Russian peasants. Peasants starved while Soviet warehouses were filled with grain. Millions died. Stalin’s response? He said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Stalin once signed the death sentence for over three thousand of his own countrymen. Then he went to the ballet with a friend.
These men were evil. Suffering often is caused by evil. But suffering itself is not inherently evil.
Suffering is not pleasant. We must not tolerate the suffering of others. We always must work to lessen unnecessary pain and ease mindless suffering. But we need to understand that suffering is not inherently evil. For the Christian, suffering leads to the glory of God.
What about death? Is death evil?
Death Is Part of the Natural Order
Death is a normal part of life. But it’s more than that. Death is the end of life as we know it. Death is a chasm too wide to cross, a wall too high to climb. Plato wrote, “No one knows whether death is really the greatest blessing a man can have, but they fear it is the greatest curse, as if they knew well.”
Death is the great mystery. Thick curtains cover the path into death. Our eyes are veiled. Famous poet Lord Byron in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” wrote, “Death, the sable smoke where vanishes the flame.” We cannot know anything about death through our own strength or knowledge or wisdom.
What lies on the other side of that chasm? What waits for us beyond that veil? People tend to fear what they do not know. For this reason many people consider death as the greatest evil known to mankind. In the work Apology, Socrates said the following when facing his own death:
For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.
Is death the greatest evil or the greatest good? Apart from a revelation from God, we do not know . . . we cannot know.
Atheists say death is the end. But, for atheists, life itself has no meaning. According to atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” Eternal life is a gift from God. If there is no God, there is no eternal life.
According to Sartre, we exist because we can think. When our consciousness ends; we cease to exist.
“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.” Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea.
Others say death is the beginning of a new life – a life after death. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote, “Death is a delightful hiding place for weary men.” The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.” Where did Seneca get this idea? Seneca lived the same time as Christ. Perhaps he picked up this idea from talking to Christians.
Jesus Christ taught new and radical concepts regarding death. First, men and women are capable of gaining eternal life. This life is for those who hear Christ’s word and believes. Jesus Christ said,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. John 5: 24-27 (NAS)
This is the Christian hope: life everlasting in the presence of God through grace by faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ gave us this promise:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. John 3: 16-17 (NAS)
In another place Jesus says this in a prayer to God the Father: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17: 3 (NAS)
The point I want to make is this: Since we do not know what will happen to us after death, we cannot say death is evil. Death may be painful, as when we lose a loved one. Death may cause loneliness. But we cannot say that death is inherently evil. It may mark the beginning of a glorious new life.
Helen Keller was very upbeat about death. She said, “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.”
Now that we know what evil is not, let’s look at some ways people have tried to explain what evil is.