This sermon is number 1 in a series of 5
101 Christian Questions - Part 1
"The Problem of Evil"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2009 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
Well, good evening to you all! It's good to be back with you in Ards, and thank you for the invitation, and thank you for your questions. I almost hesitated there, thanking you, for I've had to do a lot of work! But it has been worthwhile, and I really honestly do mean thank you, because - believe it or not - the questions you have been asking have been questions that, from time to time, would be on my heart, and it gives me the opportunity to dig deep and to consolidate some of the thoughts and convictions that I have myself. Now, I put it down to Providence that your questions - there were over 20 questions, I know that much - they all seem to streamline very well into certain categories and themes, four in particular - and it will be four nights from Tuesday to Friday, so I have just broken them up into four.
There were a number of questions on certain themes, sometimes only one question, but it would need a whole night to consider it, so tonight we're looking at 'The Problem of Evil'. If you don't even know what that is, well, thank the Lord for that - but you will by the end of this evening, and it's something that we all need to consider and face. Tomorrow evening we're going to consider some questions regarding what's the best way to learn the Bible - that's a very broad and general question, but we'll try to tie it down as far as we can. Another question tomorrow evening is regarding personal assurance which, of course, is very much connected to the word of God; and someone was looking to know the differences between, for instance, backsliders, false professors, carnal Christians, and things like that. Thursday night we hope to look at the subject of marriage, and divorce and remarriage, and there were a few questions concerning that. On Friday evening are going to look at the afterlife, and there were a number of questions about heaven, whether or not we will know one another in heaven; and about hell, whether or not people in hell can see people in heaven, and vice versa - and various questions like that.
Now, let me say: don't think that if you come along and it sounds like there's a controversial subject, that you will be offended. I will deliberately attempt, as far as possible, being true to the truth, not to offend anyone and to explore these questions with the word of God, and finding answers within - but there will be a wee bit of work for you to do as well, and to come to your own conclusions regarding some of them.
Now, tonight is a big one - and I deliberately started with a big one, because I had yesterday all day and today to deal with it - and this is 'The Problem of Evil'. Now, there are four questions that were asked that relate to the problem of evil or, as theologians call it, 'theodicy' - that's just a fancy word for a theological attempt to explain the existence of evil. How can we believe that there is an Almighty God, and yet at the same time evil, suffering, pain and sin exists? The question often goes: if there is such an all-powerful, omnipotent God, how can He allow suffering and pain to be here?
Now, the four questions were: one, if God knew the outcome, why did He create Lucifer in the first place? Now, we could spend all night on that one alone. The second: why do good things happen to bad people? The third: how do you explain to unbelievers why God allows tragedies that kill thousands of people? The fourth question, which, I was cheating a wee bit, breaking it up into a number of questions, first of all was: give some practical guidance how to come to a position of being able to say, 'The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord'. Their second question was, when I can find it: explain various facets of God's sovereignty - i.e. how God's will is worked out in the world. The third aspect to this person's question was: if you believe that God is sovereign in all things, does that label us 'Calvinists'?
So, I will deal with these one by one - but I believe that they all come together to help us really understand this great issue and, indeed, I think, understand our God a lot more. That is the main objective, isn't it? We don't want to be sat here like in a lecture or a class, and just learn the answers off pat to some difficult questions. We want to know God more, and we want to come closer to Him. So, perhaps before we delve into this, let us pray - I know we have prayed already, but you can never pray enough, and we want to ask the Lord's help and the Holy Spirit's guidance. The Lord Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, and that's what we need tonight.
Abba Father, we acknowledge that You are the Living, the Eternal, the Almighty God. We acknowledge that through Your Son, the Lord Jesus, we can enter into Your most immediate presence by His precious shed blood. We thank You that all of heaven is at our disposal - and so, Lord, we ask for the mighty presence of the Holy Spirit to be manifest in a very definite sense in this gathering tonight. Lord, we don't want this to be just 'question time', we want this to be a holy time where we encounter the Living God, and our minds, and our hearts and spirits, are illumined by Your presence. Lord, what difference and what benefit could a meeting like this be if we don't encounter the Living God. So, Lord, we want to be enriched tonight, we want to be helped. Deliver us from being puffed up with knowledge, but our lives remain unchanged and untouched by Your hand. So, Lord, we call upon You now in the name of the Lord Jesus, Lord, to move, and to help. We don't want to create unnecessary questions in people's minds if they didn't already have them, but we believe that these are questions we will encounter, whether young or old, eventually. We will call upon our resources for an answer, and we pray that this session would be a help in that regard. We pray that even if there are those who are doubting their God, or who have not yet come to faith in Christ, we pray that tonight they would be helped to that position. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
The problem of evil, or as I used the technical term 'theodicy', has become perhaps the greatest dilemma for both believers and unbelievers alike. If you haven't already thought about, you will encounter it, perhaps even by someone who will question you about it. From time to time in our own individual experiences, every one of us asks the question: why? Now, it's not wrong to ask the question 'Why?', and it's not wrong to explore this whole area of evil, suffering and pain. But just a little word of warning before we embark on this: however deep we delve, we must be realistic in our explorations. It has to be said in the world at large, with many of the discoveries that we're making technologically and scientifically, but also in the church with the advanced knowledge that we have in theological matters and the resources that are available to the church today that never have been before, there is an insatiable desire to know everything about everything - and that is utterly impossible. Unchecked, that insatiable desire to know everything about everything will eventually lead to frustration, and perhaps even despair, if you can't face the fact that it is impossible to know everything about everything.
The horizon says to us, 'Thus far and no further' - and there is a horizon to our knowledge. There's a point at which we must come, that we must be willing to accept that we must stop. Now Proverbs 25 and verse 2 says: 'It is the glory of God to conceal a matter: but the glory of kings is to search out a matter', and that is true. God has concealed certain things that we might search them out, and there is great virtue in that. I am not despising the exercise of our brains and the endeavour after knowledge, but nevertheless we must stop at certain junctures in our search and say that there are certain things that are mysterious and, indeed, unexplainable. That applies to elements in life, the universe and everything, but especially when we encounter the things of God and God's character. Now, the problem is: people who will not believe in God or Christ, or even believers who start to doubt their faith in God and Christ because of this whole issue of the problem of evil, suffering and pain. You must be willing, before we look at the answers - and I believe there are many answers, maybe not all the answers, but many answers in the word of God - but before we even begin to look at them, you must, I believe, come to the position of admitting that you cannot know everything, you cannot explain everything, and if we could explain everything we would have no need for an all-knowing God. That's the bottom line, isn't it? We would be God ourselves if we knew everything and could explain it.
So, a little verse to begin with is Deuteronomy 29:29, and you don't need to read it, it's only one verse, I'll quote it to you - and there'll be plenty of passages that I'll be calling you to look at this evening. It says this: 'The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever'. There are secret things that we can never know. We must stop and say: 'This is mysterious, this is something that only God can know'. But there are things that are revealed, and they are revealed for our benefit and for the benefit of our children. So we want to answer these questions by the things that have been revealed, and then we have to reach a point where we're stopping - well, we leave that to God.
Alright, so let's start with the first one. The first question related to the problem of evil is: if God knew the outcome, why did He create Lucifer in the first place? Now, I need to give you a very quick history of this personality, Lucifer. God created Lucifer. He was 'the light-bearer', that's what his name means - and he was probably, as we glean all the scriptures and put them together, he was probably the highest ranking angel of the whole angelic host. But his biography goes something like this: he was not content to worship God and serve his Creator, he himself decided that he wanted to be worshipped and he wanted to be served.
Now, that's what appears to be the case when we look at Ezekiel 28, and I want you to turn with me to that portion of Scripture please. Ezekiel chapter 28, and we're going to begin to read at verse 12. Whilst there is a direct addressing by the prophet of God to the King of Tyre in this passage, many Bible scholars believe that there is a prophetic utterance here that goes back far further than this historic King of Tyre, but to Satan himself who inspired this King of Tyre in his pride. So Ezekiel 28 verse 12: 'Son of man, take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus saith the Lord GOD; You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold: the workmanship of your timbrels and pipes was prepared for you on the day you were created. You were the cherub who covers; I established you: you were on the holy mountain of God; you walked back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you. By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within you, and you sinned: therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God: and I destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the fiery stones. Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty, you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendour: I cast you to the ground, I led you before kings, that they might gaze at you. You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities, by the iniquity of your trading; therefore I brought fire from your midst, it devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you'.
I think you can see that God's prophet is talking about more than simply a King of Tyre, he's talking about Lucifer's fall. If you turn to Isaiah chapter 14, we find the same there, this time through Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah 14 and verse 12, please: 'How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer', the name is used, 'son of the morning! how you are cut down to the ground, you who weaken the nations! For you have said in your heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the farthest sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the pit'.
So, it is highly likely from these portions of Scripture that Satan, Lucifer as he was, this greatest of all creation of God, became full of pride and rebelled against God and His rule. Revelation chapter 12 and verse 4, which seems to be a flashback to this event, tells us that probably a third of the angelic host defected with the rebel Lucifer. Because, in heaven, Satan was unable to match the Almighty power of God, Lucifer was cast down to earth where he has operated as the devil, which simply means 'the adversary', 'the accuser', ever since. We can read about that fall in Revelation chapter 12, if you want to look at it please, with me. Revelation chapter 12 verse 7, please: 'And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought', that is Satan, 'But they did not prevail; nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world: he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ have come: for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down'. There is a future element to that, but it does seem in part to be a flashback to this event. The Lord Jesus Himself told His own disciples in Luke chapter 10 verse 18: 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven'.
Now that is a very, very simplistic overview of the early history of who Lucifer was. But when we think of all that, it begs the question that our questioner asked: why, why if all this happened and God, because He has foresight and all-knowledge, knew it was going to happen; why did He create Lucifer in the first place? Well, let's answer this step-by-step, and we'll get nearer to the truth. First of all, let me say that God did not create Lucifer as evil. We have already read from his history that God created Lucifer as perfect - but, just as God created humans to have free will or choice, God, it appears, created the angelic host similarly: to have choice. Now please note, however we try to understand and explain these issues, we must be very careful that we do not make God the author of sin. Now that might seem a bit far-fetched to some of you, but I have read and listened to many explanations about why the Lord should have created Lucifer if He knew he was going to sin, and basically what a lot of scholars do is they say that God planned sin all along, and in fact God instigated it, and effectively God made man sin in order to fulfil His plans.
Now that is very, very dangerous, because such reasoning goes against what we know as revealed concerning the character of God. For instance, James chapter 1: 'Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed'. None of us can point the finger at God and say: 'You made me do it!'. In some regard, none of us can point the finger at the devil and say: 'The devil made me do it', because James said that we are all falling into sin because we are tempted from within. It's not God's fault, it's our fault! God cannot be the author of sin and, as 1 John 5 declares of God's character, God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. Now, there is an element of mystery, as we're going to see, in this whole matter - but we have to be very careful that we do not lay the guilt of sin in the whole of the universe at the feet of the true, holy, and living God.
What we can say is that when Lucifer, who was created perfect, when he chose to rebel against God, he immediately became the author of sin. When Satan chose to rebel, he brought sin into the world. In fact we read that, did we not, in Ezekiel 28 verse 15: 'You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you' - firmly and squarely the guilt is put upon Satan. Now you might say: 'Hold on!', and I can understand why you're doing that, 'Foreknowledge! What about God's foreknowledge? You're missing the point, why did He allow it all when He knew this was going to happen?'. So let's get to the nub of the issue, and I want to answer this in two ways: first of all, free will and choice is the key to helping us understand this issue better, free will and choice. I've already said it: God created the angels and human beings with this ability of free will. One of the reasons is, He created us in His own image and gave us the dignity of choice, but ultimately I believe He wanted us to choose Him, He wanted us to obey Him. Right from the very beginning in the Garden of Eden you can see this element in the spiritual theme of the Bible, and it goes right throughout the whole Scripture, that of obedience. There is an element of test to the whole human and universal experience. If I could put it like this: God was instigating the experiment of the ages. He created angelic hosts, and He created human beings, and He created them with the ability to choose. God ultimately wants people to want Him.
Now, people might say: 'Well, there's a problem with that, because that makes God subject to our will and limits God's sovereignty'. Maybe you've heard that said in relation to free will, that suddenly God becomes subject to our will and His sovereignty is limited. But let me pose this to you: what if God in His sovereignty chose it to be this way? Chose it that we should have free will and, in a sense, delegated or devolved a certain amount of His sovereignty to man? 'Now, be careful', you say - well, I am being careful, but we see this right from the beginning of the Bible, because what God did is: He created the universe, and then what did He do? He said: 'Adam, now, here you go, this is your playground. You're the farmer of this big field, you go ahead and you rule it'. Not only did He say that, but He gave Adam the authority to name the animals. So, in a sense, He devolved a certain amount of rulership and dominion to man. Now, we don't want to carry that to an extreme, but in Genesis 2 in the Garden this command illustrates this as well - God said, 'Of all the trees of the Garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, and the day you eat thereof you shall surely die'. There it is, it's a test: will man choose God and obey God, or will he choose himself, his own will and, ultimately, Satan's way?
So you might say: 'Well, if God gives us free will, it makes God subject to our will and it limits His sovereignty' - but what if God in His sovereignty has chosen to do it this way? I believe He has, and I believe the Scripture bears this out. I'll tell you this: I believe this glorifies the sovereignty of God in a far greater way than if He had made us robots and forced our hand on every regard, and put our arm up our back to behave in the way that He wishes us to. The reason being: He has given us, as human beings, choice. Even when we go and make the wrong choice, the great glorious aspect to God's sovereignty is this: He still is able to work out His purposes regardless of the wrong choices that we make! Now that's great! That's glorious! Here's a lesson to learn in regard to this, and there's always going to be an argument and a tension about God's sovereignty versus man's responsibility and free will, and I'm not going to solve that one that has been fought for centuries tonight! But the great challenge is to keep the dignity of man's free choice and free will untainted and undefiled as God created, and yet also keep God's complete sovereignty intact. Now that's mysterious, but nevertheless that's what the Bible teaches - and, if I can put it in this way, God will never force our choice, but we can never thwart His plan. God will never force our choice, but we can never thwart His plan - and that is the mystery of the sovereignty of God and man's free will.
Now, someone will say - I hope you're saying it, and you haven't fallen asleep already - 'But why?', here it is, this old question again, 'But why did He press the play button in the first place when He knew how it would play out? I mean, why?'. Well, here's the second answer to this question I believe - if God knew the outcome, why did He create Lucifer? Not just the issue of free will and choice that He gave angels, and He gave us that option, but secondly: His eternal purposes answer this. God has eternal purposes, and God has a plan. Let me say quite clearly: it's not 'Plan B', it's 'Plan A'. What I mean by that is: God didn't get taken unawares one day when the devil decided to try to usurp His authority in heaven, and then Adam and Eve suddenly took of the fruit, and all of a sudden God's plan was messed up and He had to instigate a salvage, rescue plan ad-hoc as it were, and suddenly devise a way of salvation. That is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that God has always had a 'Plan A'. Ephesians 1 verse 11 says that He works all things according to the counsel of His will. Now, we put our hands up and we say we cannot understand His ways, and the Bible says His ways are past finding out - but from what God reveals of Himself in His holy word, we know Him well enough through His revelation of Himself to know that whatever He does, whatever His plan is, it is all for the glory of His Son. We have that in black-and-white, that it was by the Lord Jesus that all things were created, and for Him all things were created.
So God's plan has always been to glorify Himself and to glorify His Son, and He created the worlds not only through Jesus, but for the glory of Jesus ultimately. So God's great plan is to glorify Christ, and also God's plan is for the good of those who love Him and choose Him, and ultimately it is to conform us who believe in Him to the image of His Son. Now there's an element of mystery there, because God gives us the choice - and we chose that which was wrong - but God knew we were going to choose that which was wrong, and whilst God is not the author of sin, God has always had, before the foundation of the world the Bible says, a plan to glorify the Lord Jesus, and to redeem a people for Himself, and to conform those people to the image of His Son. You must hold both those truths, because both those truths are in the word of God. I can't reconcile them completely, and neither can you by the way!
But having said that, here's something for you to consider: could man have ever known divine love, divine mercy, and divine grace if God, before the foundation of the world, had never a plan? There is mystery there, that's why Wesley put it:
'Tis mystery all: the Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?'
'Love so amazing, so divine'. Now, I think, whilst we can't answer all the issues regarding this, I think the motivation for the question 'Why? Why did God create Lucifer if He knew what he was going to do? Why is there so much suffering and pain in the world?', that that question is motivated by another question. It's this: why did He let it all happen when sin has cost humanity so much? That's really the underlying question, isn't it? But you see there's a problem with that question, and here's the problem: why are you focusing on the cost to humanity, when we could equally ask the question, what about what it cost God? What about all the pain, the suffering, and the sin that the New Testament tells us, in that wonderful final revelation of God to us, that Jesus Christ, who is God Himself, the Creator of the worlds, that He came into human flesh and bore all of our grief, all of our sorrow, all of our sin upon Himself? He took it upon Himself! We might as well ask the question: 'Well, why did God go ahead and create Lucifer if He knew what was going to happen, and the pain it was going to cause Him?'. Because, let me tell you, the Bible says that whatever you go through and whatever I go through - and, let me tell you, there's a lot of people going through a lot more than maybe all of us put together, in this world at this very moment - every pain, every sorrow, every sin, all guilt of every man and every woman was laid upon Jesus. God could have decided to spare Himself the pain, but He didn't. He didn't, so that we might enjoy life and, more than that, that we might enjoy eternal life, and the love, and grace, and mercy of God that's available to all men, the Bible teaches.
Acts 2:23 says concerning the cross that the Lord Jesus was 'delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God', and yet the apostle castigated the Jews for having taken Him by lawless hands, and crucified, and put Him to death. There you have that relationship with men in their free will, who took Christ and crucified Him, and yet in the counsels, the eternal counsels of God before the foundation of the world, this was preordained for our salvation and for the glory of God, and the ultimate glory of His Son and His people.
Now, I know these are deep things, but we must keep a blend of these two truths. One thing I'm very sure of is that Satan hates and fears God's preordained plan, he detests it! He detests salvation; he detests a new heaven and a new earth that are yet to be; he detests that God is going to conform His special believing people and make them completely holy and perfect in the image of His own Son; he detests the fact that God's preordained plan will prove that God is victorious over evil, all evil and all evil beings, whether they be demonic or humans who followed the demonic. That is why in Revelation chapter 12 and verse 11 we read this, that: 'They', that is, the saints of God, 'overcame the devil', the dragon, 'by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony'. That is the power that God has given to those who believe in Christ, because He allowed Satan to be created, even though He knew what he was going to do.
Now, I freely admit I do not have all the answers - and that, I'm sure, is obvious tonight - and I don't think anyone has. It has to also be said that some of the answers that are given may raise more questions. But we must realise, as I've said at the outset, that there are areas we cannot look into. I was talking about this with a lady today who is very knowledgeable on theological matters, and she was explaining how she had heard a speaker on one occasion describe these revealed and secret elements to knowledge - how there are things that we can know, answers that we can give, and there are areas that are dark to us - like this: the illustration of a piece of land. There is free territory ranging the whole of that piece of land, but there is a segregated area that we are not allowed into. The illustration was that our knowledge, what we can know, is that free territory where we can roam and explore - it is God's revelation to us in His word. But the fenced territory is God's territory, and there is a sign there saying: 'No Trespassing'. We must observe that.
We see through a glass darkly, the Bible says, we see in a mirror dimly. There is mystery. God's ways, Isaiah says, are not our ways. Romans 11 says: 'Who has known the mind of the LORD?' - but what is sure, Ephesians says, is that 'in the dispensation of the fullness of times God will gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth - in Him'. God has a plan in Christ. Down through the eternal ages, Ephesians 2 and verse 7 says, God is going to put on a 'grace exhibition'. Ephesians 2:7 says: 'that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus'. In other words, age upon age in eternity are going to come one after another, and God is going to teach us more and more about the riches of His unbounding and everlasting grace toward us. So, how could we ever answer every question now, when it's going to take all eternity for us to grasp the depth of it all? Yet, on a very practical note, because I know this type of thing - even if it's not articulated in as much detail as we have done tonight - in our hearts we become troubled by the existence of evil and sin, and suffering and pain all around us. But here is a personal, practical lesson: personal peace of mind and heart from Satan, from evil, from suffering, comes by being God-centred, by understanding - yes, we have free will, and other people have free will to do as they please even toward us - but God is in control, and God rules forever. As Romans 8:28 says, God will work all things together for good to those who love God, to those who are called - what? - according to His purpose.
Now, I hope that that comes some of the way to answering the question: if God knew the outcome, why did He create Lucifer? The second question related to the problem of evil is: why do good things happen to bad people? Now the first thing I would say to that is, to answer it with a question - that's often the way the Lord Jesus answered questions - but: are there good and bad people about? Are there? That's an interesting one! The Bible says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, there is none righteous, none good, no not one. When you think of that, you have to ask another question: why do any of us deserve anything good? You say: 'Be careful where you're going with this', well, I understand what you're saying, but let's consider this for a moment. A lot of us have this, and we've had it ingrained from our society, that God owes us something - and He doesn't! If the truth be told, any of us, all we deserve is eternal judgement for our wickedness in God's sight. Now, that's not the way God behaves towards us of course, but that is what we deserve. If we got justice - everybody's crying out for justice these days in our world - but if we got spiritual justice, well, we wouldn't even (and I want you to grasp this) we wouldn't even be eking out a living now! The fact that God has allowed you to live, and anybody in this world to live this very evening, no matter how miserable their existence might be, is a demonstration of the long-suffering patience and mercy and grace of Almighty God. We're already getting more than we deserve - and yet the wonder is that God has given us His Son, and given us all things in Christ if we will but believe in Him.
But I understand the question you're asking: why do good things happen to bad people? In other words, why is it that some people seem to get away with wicked things, and reasonably upstanding, moral people have a hard deal? Well, there are a couple of answers to this one: first of all, there is a general principle in the word of God. Jesus said in Matthew 5 and verse 45: 'God', the Father, 'makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good', the sun rises and sets on the evil and on the good, 'and God sends rain on the just and on the unjust'. So there is a general principle which is basically teaching us, I think, that good and bad happens to all. We all get our fair share of good and bad things in life - but the question seems motivated by this insinuation: that some people - and I would agree - some people seem to have more or less than their fair share of either good or bad. We could all give examples of people that seem to have had a really raw deal in life for no reason, they certainly didn't earn it. Other people have done everything wrong in their life, but they seem to have the Midas touch whether materially or in some other way.
First of all we need to establish that everybody has to deal with knocks on the chin at some stage in life: man is born unto trouble as sparks fly upward. But another aspect to this answer is important, and that is this: we shouldn't expect anything different than that bad people have good often done to them, good things happen to them - because those people in our world who have surrendered to evil will prosper now. It figures that that will often happen. Let me give you an example, and this fits in with our previous question - in Matthew chapter 4 we have the temptation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the testing. You remember that Satan came to the Lord and said: 'If You will worship me, if You will do this, do that, if You will worship me I will give you all the kingdoms of the world'. Now, that infers that the kingdoms of the world were his to give, because he is the god of this world - and, incidentally, it was man in the Garden of Eden who had that authority devolved to him by God, who gave it over to Satan, OK? But what I'm really illustrating to you is: if you will sign on the dotted line, Satan offers you everything now. He offers you the whole world and everything in it, if you will have it, and if you would sell your soul over to him and ultimately lose it for all eternity. That's what a lot of people are doing, and that's why good often happens to apparently bad people.
We ought to expect it. We ought to expect that those investing their lives in this world system and all its principles and practices will get ahead. We ought to expect - reality check - that we, as the people of God, will have a hard deal. Jesus said as much in John 16: 'In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world'. You will have a hard time in this world, because what we are doing is: we are swimming against the tide. If we're not swimming against the tide, we're in trouble!
So there are two things to remember in this answer to, 'Why do good things happen to bad people?'. The general principle that good and bad happens to everybody, but secondly: if people in this world have surrendered themselves to evil and the ways of the world and the devil, it is expected that they will prosper now, and it is expected that those who don't stand with Satan will be opposed by this system. Yet, even acknowledging those things, there is genuine bewilderment - and I share it - at how things often turn out for people who just do everything wrong. You're left standing, aren't you, thinking: how can they get away with that? We say it metaphorically, and we've said over the last couple of years at least in our province, literally: people are getting away with murder - and they are! You can politicise it all you like, but that's reality. People are getting away with murder. We then move on from that to say: how can God allow it? That's what's underlying this issue, really: how can God allow it? How can God allow good things to happen to bad people?
Well, we come right back full course to where we started: freedom. That, in a sense, is part of the cost of what it is to be free - but you say: 'But it's not fair!'. Well, you're right, it's not fair - and just to illustrate that for you, if you would turn with me to Psalm 73, and this was often a theme in the Psalms. Psalm 73, now read this Psalm with me, because this is important - the Psalmist was sharing your sentiment and mine: it's not fair. 'Truly God is good to Israel' - OK, maybe I'm being facetious, but he gets the spiritual bit out of his mouth, 'God is good to Israel, To such as are pure in heart. But as for me', I've got a problem, I know God is good Israel, but 'my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride serves as their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than heart could wish. They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression; they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth. Therefore his people return here, and waters of a full cup are drained by them. And they say, 'How does God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?'' - does God know what's going on down here on earth? 'Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease; they increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain'.
Have you ever said that? Have you ever thought to yourself: 'Here are these wicked people, and they're getting away with all sorts of things, and they seem to be only prospering. Here's me, I get saved, I become a Christian, I try to live according to the principles of God's word - and everything seems to go wrong for me! Where is the fairness? I think it's a waste of time!' - that's basically what the Psalmist is saying. 'Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain', verse 13, 'And washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning. If I had said, 'I will speak thus', Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me'. That, basically, is his way of saying: it's not fair!
Now, there is a danger here, and the danger is that we become envious - like the Psalmist seems to have - we become envious of the wicked. I don't know whether you're a person who grew up in a Christian home as a young person, but I had that experience - and sometimes you're tempted by the world to a greater extent, because you've never experienced it and you've got this sort of idea that you're missing out on something. You can actually be envious of people in the world, because they are living it up - wine, women and song and all the rest - and you haven't maybe experienced all that, and you think you've missed out on something. There's a great danger here, and here is the danger: you need perspective. Verse 17, after all this great rant of the Psalmist, he said: 'It was too painful for me', end of verse 16, 'Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end'.
What that is saying is, simply, he, by faith, saw the eternal perspective. Oh yes, they're living it up now. Yes, good things seem to be happening to bad people, and they are living out their innings and seem to be getting away with murder - but the Psalmist is saying you need to look at the long game! You need to gain an eternal perspective. He says when he went into the sanctuary, the house of God - and I don't think, perhaps, that meant the Temple, I think he's talking spiritually of entering into the presence of God - then he understood the end of the wicked. What was the long game? Look at verse 23, it was this, he started to realise what he has in God: 'Nevertheless I am continually with You', the wicked aren't with You, 'You hold me by my right hand', they aren't held by their right hand, 'You guide me with Your counsel', the wicked don't have the counsel of the Almighty, 'And afterward' - what about this one? - 'receive me to glory'. 'Whom have I in heaven but You?' - so he's getting his eyes off earth, and what people have here, and what the wicked have - but he says, 'Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You'. The things of earth are growing strangely dim, because he's got his perspective on God: 'My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever'.
Why do good things happen to bad people? Well, the general principle is that good and bad happen to everybody; and if you surrender your life to the world principles around us and Satan himself, you will succeed and it will be apparent - but it will only be for a short while. Now, I think what I have already said has answered the fourth question - two aspects of it - explain various facets of God's sovereignty, God's will at work in the world, that's been explained, I think. Then let me just quickly answer this one: believing that God is sovereign in all things, does that label us 'Calvinists'? That's a very big subject which I'm not going to go into tonight, but let me just say that I don't believe it does label us 'Calvinists', because there is more to being a Calvinist than simply believing in God's sovereignty. But I have to say, just sharing with you, I try to avoid any extra-biblical labels, I try to keep to just being a Christian - and not a this, that, or the other - and I think that's advisable.
Let's look at this third question, and I hope you'll give me the time to deal with it. The third question is: how do you explain to unbelievers why God allows tragedies that kill thousands of people? That's a good one, but why is it - here's another question! - why is it that we only think that thousands of people dying is a tragedy? Is one death not a tragedy? Maybe it's because it's flashed across the 24-hour news channels when there's an earthquake, or a tsunami somewhere, or a terrorist attack - but consider this: that every day approximately 151,388 people die, every day! Now, what we're really facing is that death is a tragedy - one death, or 151,388, or whatever it is. Ultimately, this is the pinnacle of the matter: death is the result of human choice. We're going right back to the Garden of Eden: 'In the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in that day you will die'. Man had a choice to disobey God, and Genesis 2 tells us that he disobeyed God. We are working out the whole of that awful tragedy in the Garden of Eden in our tragic life that is in the midst of death.
But let me go a bit further on that, because man very conveniently ignores how much suffering has been caused directly in this present day and age by his own selfishness and his own sin. I read a very helpful article by John Blanchard, and I'll just read it to you now in this regard, think of this: 'Although our planet provides enough food to feed all six billion of us, millions die of starvation every year because of our selﬁsh pollution of the atmosphere, our exploitation or mismanagement of the earth's resources and the vicious policies of dictatorial regimes. Can we blame God for these? Is He responsible for diverting disaster funds into the pockets of tyrannical rulers or greedy politicians? Millions are dying of hunger in India while its national religion forbids the use of cows as food. Hinduism has millions of man-made gods; can the country's chronic food problems be blamed on the God it ignores? Suffering is often caused by human error or incompetence. Had the owners of the Titanic not reduced the recommended number of lifeboats to avoid the boat deck looking cluttered, many more, if not all, of the ship's passengers might have been saved. Was God responsible for that executive decision? The International Atomic Enquiry Agency blamed 'defective safety culture' for the Chernobyl disaster. Can the blame for careless neglect of safety procedures be laid at God's door?'. Then he goes on to say: 'A great deal of human suffering is deliberately self-inﬂicted. Smokers who ignore health warnings and are crippled by lung cancer or heart disease, heavy drinkers who suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, drug addicts and those dying of AIDS after indiscriminate sex are obvious examples. So are gluttons who dig their graves with knives and forks, workaholics who drive themselves to physical or mental breakdowns, to say nothing of the countless people who suffer from serious illness as a direct result of suppressed hatred, anger, bitterness and envy. Is God to blame for their behaviour?'. Man conveniently avoids that, doesn't he?
An article in The Times once asked the question: 'What's wrong with the world?'. In the correspondence that followed, the shortest answer was by far the best - it went like this: 'In response to your question, 'What's wrong with the world?', I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton' - I am. We often blame God simply to take the attention off ourselves. Now, granted, there are certain events, we often call them 'acts of God' for whatever reason, that we cannot explain - headline making natural disasters, personal tragedies in individual lives and families. What are these? Well, we can't explain the reason why they happen to certain people and don't happen to others, but there is a general principle there that they are wake-up calls to us, warnings to us that evil exists, that suffering is real, that life is brief and fragile, and that death is certain and approaching. Now we don't have time to look at the subject of how Jesus said in John 9 that sometimes suffering can be glorifying to God. You remember the man there, and the disciples asked: 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he is born blind?', and Jesus said, 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him'. Sometimes God is glorified in suffering when He delivers us from it by healing, or when He delivers us in it by His sustaining grace.
But ultimately - and this is one you need to think of if you're trying to explain this to unbelievers, which was the initial question - ultimately the existence of evil, now listen carefully, it points towards the existence of God, not away from it. The existence of evil ultimately points toward the existence of God, not away from it. Why? Well, does dispatching of God solve the problem of evil and suffering? Does it? 'We'll bin the idea of God' - does evil and suffering go away? No! It leaves us trapped in what someone has called 'that hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silence of the universe - all our questions with not one answer'. If we get rid of God, what we do is: we leave hurting people in the darkness as atheists, without any answers and without any hopes.
Now we don't have all the answers, so what do we do? Well, we point to Jesus, and the reason why we point to Jesus is - well, let me illustrate it as John Blanchard does - he says that soon after the events of September 11th 2001, he was asked the question, 'Where was God when religious fanatics killed those 2,800 people?'. John Blanchard quickly replied, 'Where was God? Exactly where He was when religious fanatics killed His Son, Jesus Christ - in complete control of everything that happened'. That's it! Now if you study Psalm 22 verse 1, you will get this same answer. What is the first question? 'Why? My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?', now that was uttered first of all by the Psalmist David, we know it was prophetic of Christ - but the Psalmist David, for some reason unknown to us, was asking the question 'Why?'. Now where did the Holy Spirit of the Living God prophetically take him? To Calvary! What that teaches me is that the great answer to the question 'Why?' is the crucified God, the God who became flesh and died for us bearing our shame and our pain.
Now finally, the fourth question is for some practical guidance on how to come to saying 'The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord'. Let me deal with this as quickly as I can. If you're asking that question, you need to get to the context where that statement is found that you have made into a question, and that's the book of Job. I wish we had time to read chapters 1 and 2, because it really details for us this big issue of how Satan is real, but Satan answers to God, and Satan ultimately can be controlled by God, and yet God gives him a certain amount of freedom - and so on and so forth. It's wonderful regarding all these issues, but you might be interested to know that Job is the first book, we think, that was written. It's not historically about the first things, like Genesis is, but it's probably the first book that was authored. Now isn't it interesting that the first book written in the Bible deals with the paradox of God's sovereignty and the presence of evil?
Here's the big lesson in the book of Job: at the end of the book Job doesn't find an answer to his question of why he was suffering. He had everything and he lost everything, he doesn't get his question 'Why?' answered - but do you know what happens to Job? Now listen carefully to what I'm saying: he loses his question for a better one. He loses the question, 'Why is this all happening?', in the wonderful providence of God. His greater question becomes, 'Who is wise?'. Now virtually all the characters in the book of Job claim to have wisdom - Job's comforters, you've heard of them. It's only at the end that God actually speaks in the book, and He speaks out of a whirlwind to settle the issue once and for all, and He basically declares that there is no contest, no human has a legitimate claim on wisdom - God alone is all-wise.
Job is confronted with a crisis of faith in chapters 38 through to 41 - let's read a couple of verses in chapter 38, and I'm almost finished you'll be glad to know! Job chapter 38, and this is Job's answer - he's been questioning so many things, and he begins to realise that true wisdom is with God. Verse 1 of 38: 'Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: 'Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?'. The proper human response, we're finding, to these great questions of evil and suffering and pain is not getting answers, but what Job has experienced: encountering God and repenting, and submitting to the all-wise God.
This is exactly what happens to Job, look at chapter 42 and verse 3, verse 1 says: 'Then Job answered the LORD and said: 'I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, 'Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand', that's what we do! 'Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, 'I will question you, and you shall answer Me'. I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'. His question 'Why?', was changed to, 'Who is wise?'. He repented of his questioning and submitted to the all-wise God - but there is a general answer to Job's question, 'Why?'. We've already said it, it's in Jesus Christ - God who entered into the world of human suffering at the cross, without complaining - think of it! One man put it like this: the Lord Himself has embraced and absorbed the undeserved consequences of evil. Did the Lord deserve anything that He bore at the cross? Yet He absorbed and embraced it, this is the final answer to Job and all the Jobs of humanity: the cross.
It's a big question, isn't it, the problem of evil? We've tried, I'm sure very insufficiently, to answer these four tonight - but isn't it wonderful to be able to declare, whatever you're facing this evening, that:
'God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year:
God is working His purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled
With the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea'.
That ought to help. Let us pray. Now, while our heads bowed, it's important we don't rush. These are the questions you've been asking, and I've given you as much as I can from God's Word - and I apologise if it has bamboozled some, but I don't think it should have. You need to face these things because someone will face you with them eventually, if circumstances in life don't. But here's the bottom line: will you allow yourself to encounter the God who allows you to make choices, and yet the God who has an ultimate purpose not just for you but for this world - the God who, if you put your hand in His hand, will allow you to share in the wonderful, incredible, amazing inheritance of the future of His great redemptive plan and the new heaven and the new earth which will soon come to pass? If you're hurting tonight, and I'm sure there's someone here, may you get into the Temple of God - that means the presence of God - and see the big picture. Your God reigns! Your God is in control! Your God is devising the agenda, and the devil - even the devil, though he has been given freedom and given this hour - even the devil will heel to the foot of God.
Father, I feel so foolish, I feel like the little boy paddling at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, fiddling about and yet ignorant to the vastness that is before him. Lord, I confess to You that I have at times questioned You and doubted these truths, and tried to contain Your sovereignty, tried to box You in. Lord, I repent, and Lord I pray that we will stop - all of us - trying to get You to follow our agenda, and start seeing what the Father is doing and get behind that, O Lord, for You are God. I thank You that one day, and I believe it's sooner rather than later, one day all things in heaven and earth and under the earth will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. One day, wonder of wonders, we all who believe in You will be conformed to the image of Jesus, Your Son. Lord, thrill us with these truths, and help us in our pain to see the One who endured the contradiction and opposition of sinners, despising the shame - the crucified and risen Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered in the Ards Evangelical Church, Northern Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the first recording in his '101 Christian Questions' series, entitled "The Problem of Evil" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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