The Goodness of God and the reality of evil

By Greg Knapp

“Why?” Cindy exclaimed.  “Why did this happen to me?”  Cindy was in tears and inconsolable.  Bill, the love of her life, her partner in marriage, and the father of her two sons had been killed in a car accident.  Just last night they had been reflecting on how good God had been to them – a new house, a promotion at work for Bill, good grades for the boys at school – but now, on the side of a snow-covered highway, everything had come to a crashing stop.  “Why would God allow this to happen to me?” 

That question has plagued people all over the world, for centuries past until now.  Even the psalmist in Psalm 10:1 cried out, “Why do you stand afar off, O Lord?  Why do You hide in times of trouble?”   Why does a God of goodness allow such evil in the world?   Every rational person must deal with the problem of evil.  From the tribesman in a hut on the back side of Borneo to a man sitting in the pews of a church in south Texas, tragedy and evil affect every human being on planet Earth.  For most people, this issue is faced only in the time of crisis – a car accident, a cancer or some other disease, or a senseless shooting in a school.  We saw evil show up again last week as a hurricane devastated the Carolinas.  How do we explain it?  How do we provide a theodicy – and explanation of suffering and evil for the world in which we live? 

In order to answer these questions we must first define the goodness of God.  Because the word “good” is such a subjective term, it is best to offer a definition through the use of synonyms.  As A.W. Tozer rightly explains it:

“The goodness of God is that which disposes Him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will to men.  He is tenderhearted and of quick sympathy, and His unfailing attitude toward all moral beings is open, frank, and friendly.  By His nature He is inclined to bestow blessedness and He takes holy pleasure in the happiness of His people.”[1]

As an attribute of God, His goodness is intertwined with His other attributes.  We know that God is infinite.  This means that whatever God is, He is infinitely.  For example the sun is hot, but not infinitely hot for there are other heat sources in the universe.  It is possible for an ocean to be deep, but not infinitely deep.  A person can be kind, but not infinitely kind.  Only God can claim infinitude.  Therefore, when the composer of Psalm 136 proclaims, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good!  For His mercy endures forever!” he is saying that God is infinitely good and there is no boundary to it. 

Not only is God infinitely good, He is also perfectly good.  This means that He will never be almost completely good, or halfway good, or just a little good.  He is perfectly good and that will never change, because God never changes.  What He was, He is and what He is, He will be.  He is immutable. 

Knowing that all of God’s attributes work together in harmony – goodness, love, justice and wrath – we must also speak of His severity.  In Romans 11:22 Paul writes, “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness.  Otherwise you also will be cut off.”  In this passage, Paul is speaking of Israel and how they will be cut off for their unbelief.  It illustrates the branches falling in such a way as to be completely ruined. Those who believe and accept God’s gracious offer of salvation will experience His goodness.  Those who reject it will experience His severity.  In other words, those who reject God’s goodness will receive His judgment and wrath.  

The Genesis account states that after God created He declared His creation to be good.  That was the world into which Adam and Eve came…a good world.  But because of one act of rebellion against God, sin entered and the world was cursed.   Such was the world in which Paul lived (as described in Romans 1:18-32) and such is the one in which we live…a broken world full of evil and calamity.

How then does a Christian respond to the question of God’s goodness in the face of suffering and evil?  First and foremost, we must affirm the true character and power of God.  The Word of God leaves no wiggle room in the areas of omnipotence and goodness.  The God of the Bible is not an absentee engineer who has withdrawn from creation and is observing from a distance – a belief to which the Deists hold.  He is the sovereign ruler of all creation who is actively involved with His creatures.  He knows the number of hairs on our head and not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge.  He is the reigning ruler over all nations and principalities.  Even Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed the sovereignty of God in Daniel 4:35 when he said, “He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.  No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’”

Liberal theologians involved in open theism have attempted to solve this dilemma of sovereignty by shrinking God down to size and removing Him from the equation.  By removing (or at the least resizing) God’s omnipotence, they deny His sovereign and active rule.  These liberal theologians will say that God is good, but not that He is great.  He is always ready with a back-up plan when the first one fails.  He is resourceful, but not sovereign.

Process theologians, likewise, have attempted to cut God down to size.  However their approach involves placing God in the created order.  This is explained by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.[2]  He argues that God is doing the best He can under the circumstances.  He would like to prevent tragedy and evil, but is simply unable to do so.

These are dangerous roads to take.  For the God who revealed Himself in the Bible causes the rise and fall of empires and the holds the universe together by His will.  His omnipotence and goodness are equally asserted in Scripture and it is by these truths that He is sovereign.

Second, we must avoid attempting to give explanation where Scripture is silent.  We know that all suffering is meaningful – tests and trials meant for our own edification (James 1).  We also know that all suffering and evil is ultimately caused by sin.  When speaking of the problem of evil, it is typically divided into two kinds, moral and natural.  Moral evil is premeditated – a conscience decision.  The murder of the Galileans in Luke 13, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX, are all examples of moral evil.

However the blind man’s condition in John 9, as explained by Jesus, cannot be traced back to a sin in his life or his parents.  The man was born blind so that the miracle of healing which Jesus did was evidence of God’s glory.  Natural evil happens without a conscience decision.  Earthquakes, tornados, super-typhoons, cancer, and disease are all examples of natural evil.  These are typically the result of a fallen world living under the curse of sin.  However we must be careful in this area.  We are in no position to say that there is never a link between human sin and tragedies like these.  Scripture clearly shows that sometimes God responds to sin with natural disasters.  The towns of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 are examples of this.  We also see Jesus warning His disciples in Matthew 24:7-8 that wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes are the “beginning of sorrows” or the beginning of tribulations.  Natural disasters are only a glimpse of the cataclysm that is to come – the holy judgment of God.

Lastly, Christians should respond with the love which Jesus Christ demonstrated and the power of the gospel.  When confronted with the man born blind and the lame man, Jesus responded by healing them for the glory of God.  After the death of Lazarus, Jesus first grieved and wept with Mary and Martha, then brought him back to life.  Jesus responded to suffering with compassion and aid.  While we cannot perform the miracles which our Lord did, we should follow His example.  Weep with those who weep and grieve with those who grieve, for tragedies like the Sutherland Springs bring much mourning.  We should also be the first to respond with charity and aid.  Christians are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give water to the thirsty.  Our care and compassion for “the least of these” should be an integral part of our ministry.  Above all else, however, we should be seizing opportunities to confront disaster and tragedy with the life-altering power of the gospel.  Our answer to the question of evil and suffering must be the unfathomable power of the gospel – the power to bring life out of death. 

[1] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1961), 127-128.

[2] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schoken, 1981).