Evil, Suffering and God
EVIL, SUFFERING AND GOD
A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Amherst Island, ON,
June 22, 2014, by Zander Dunn
I have a friend who keeps asking me
why there’s so much evil in the world,
why there’s so much suffering in the world,
why God doesn’t stop those things?
She’s upset by the disappearance of Flight 370
with close to 300 people missing.
She’s appalled by the kidnapping of 275 girls
raped or to be sold as slaves in Nigeria.
She’s horrified by the civil war in Syria -
thousands killed and millions of refugees.
She’s disgusted by the sinking of the South Korean ferry and
hundreds of drowned students.
She’s shocked by the R.C.M.P. report that over 1,000
native women have been killed or are missing.
She knows much of the evil is perpetrated
by men and women but she cries out that God
should do something to stop such things.
How can a God of Love do nothing, but
simply allow such horrible things to happen?
If God is good and all loving, how can evil exist?
This question about how evil and suffering can exist
if God is a God of love is one of the most
difficult questions we’ll ever face.
Let’s simply be honest and admit that life is hard.
Not for everybody, but for many people
evil and suffering are big issues.
We, who live in a good, rich part of the world,
don’t have to face nearly as many problems
as do the people of poor countries.
But even in Canada many of us suffer poor health
and we are victims of evil.
Even good people, religious people, loving people
must deal with evil and suffering.
We may believe in God but still we’re hurt by
evil and suffering.
I’ve spoken with many people who say that
the best argument against the existence
of God is the reality of evil.
They ask me,
“With all the evil in the world,
how can you believe in God?”
Thousands of books have been written
on the problem of evil,
on the source of evil,
on why the innocent suffer.
Even Jesus cried out in despair,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
That question is ironic because I believe that
God does not forsake us in our suffering.
Nor did Jesus believe that God had forsaken him.
He was quoting Psalm 22,
a psalm which goes on to declare,
“God did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.”
I cannot explain why there is evil and suffering.
Of course, sometimes we bring evil and suffering
I cannot explain why our loving God allows
evil and suffering to defeat us time after time.
I believe God is with us in evil and in our suffering
and that often suffering can be transformed
into powerful joy.
I believe God is with us always, and even the worst
that can happen to us can be turned into
a blessing and a new beginning.
Despite what I believe, the truth is that for many
people God seems to be absent when they
Evil seems to defeat Goodness.
God seems to be helpless when evil triumphs.
Perhaps the best example of this is contained in
Elie Wiesel’s book entitled, “Night.”
The scene is set in the Auschwitz death camp.
In that camp Jews were exterminated by the Nazis.
One day when we came back from work,
we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call.
SS all around us, machine guns trained; the
traditional ceremony. Three victims in
chains - and one of them, the little servant,
the sad-eyed angel. The SS seemed more
preoccupied, more disturbed than usual.
To hang a young boy in front of thousands
of spectators was no light matter. The head
of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were
on the child. He was lividly pale, almost
calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its
shadow over him. The three victims mounted
together onto the chairs. The three necks
were placed at the same moment within the
nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two
adults. But the child was silent. “Where is
God? Where is He?” someone behind me
asked. At a sign from the head of the camp,
the three chairs tipped over. Total silence
throughout the camp. On the horizon, the
sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled
the head of the camp. His voice was raucous.
We were weeping. “Cover your heads.”
Then the march past began. The two adults
were no longer alive. Their tongues hung
swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was
still moving; being so light, the child was
still alive.... For more than half an hour he
stayed there, struggling between life and
death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.
And we had to look him full in the face. He
was still alive when I passed in front of him.
His tongue was still red, his eyes were not
yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same
man asking: “Where is God now?” And I
heard a voice within me answer him,
“Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging
on these gallows.”
Where is God when evil and suffering beset us?
Jeremiah discovered the answer to his own suffering
as he took the suffering of his people on
himself and cried out to God for them.
Jesus discovered God with him in his suffering.
Yes, Jesus asked where God was.
But did you notice Jesus asked God that question?
“My God, my God, why have you
Jesus knew God was with him; he could talk to him
even when God appeared to be absent,
even when death appeared to win.
Jesus believed not even death could defeat God.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it
Pathos means suffering; sym means with; put them
together and we get sympathy - to suffer with.
The Jews believed God suffered with them.
In suffering with the Jews, God gave them
the strength they needed to endure.
One Christian theologian calls God the
“fellow sufferer who understands.”
The Psalmist sings:
“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
Sheol is the place of the dead.
The Jews had no concept of hell.
The Psalmist is telling us that no one can escape God.
That is what has bolstered and uplifted the Jews
over all the years they’ve suffered evil
at the hands of other people.
Despite hatred, pogroms, cruelty and injustice,
even from Christians, they have endured.
When so-called Christians killed six million Jews
they did not defeat the Jews because
the Jews knew God was with them.
At the worst times in their lives
the Jews prevailed because God was with them.
Only a few years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a
book entitled, “When Bad Things Happen to
He wrote that book out of the sadness in his life
when he and his wife discovered that their son,
Aaron, was born with progeria, that
incurable disease which causes
aging and early death.
Aaron always looked like an old man.
He aged rapidly.
He died, of old age, at 14.
Kushner declared that often, when bad things happen
to good people, God can’t help them.
God may love them but God is limited.
God can’t solve their problems;
God doesn’t eradicate the evil in their lives;
God’s unable to stop their suffering.
I don’t agree with Kushner because
I don’t dare try to limit God in any way.
But it’s true, that when evil hits or suffering strikes,
God does not intervene to save us.
A blind man was brought to Jesus.
His disciples asked the standard question:
“Who sinned, that this man was born blind?”
Jesus answered that it was nobody’s fault.
That man was not blind because
he’d sinned or because his parents had sinned.
Bad things happen - without explanation.
Luke tells us about two calamities.
First, Pontius Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans.
That was an act of political violence - an atrocity.
Second, a tower collapsed, killing 18 people.
That was a whim of fate - a tragedy.
Were the men Pilate had killed
worse sinners than all other Galileans?
Were those who perished in the tower catastrophe
worse sinners than others in Jerusalem?
Jesus told his followers:
“Those men were not killed because
they were bad or wrong or sinful.
They were in the wrong place
at the wrong time. Bad things
happen. No easy explanation.
If you want to know the cause
of the disasters, then blame the
cruelty of Pontius Pilate or blame
the poor workmanship of those
who built the tower and the scaffolding.
But don’t ever say God was punishing
those who died.”
I remember being deeply moved when I read about
the death of the 21 year old son of The Rev.
William Sloane Coffin, the pastor of
Riverside Church, New York city.
Alex Coffin drove off a bridge into
Boston harbour and drowned.
Trying to comfort him, a woman said to Coffin,
“I just don’t understand God’s will.”
The Rev. Coffin lashed out in anger,
“I’ll say you don’t understand God’s will, lady.
Do you think it was the will of God that Alex
never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that
Alex was probably driving too fast in such a
storm, that Alex had probably had too much
to drink? Do you think it is God’s will there
are no street lights along that stretch of road,
no guard rail separating the road and Boston
Coffin later commented,
“For some reason I can’t get it through
people’s heads that God doesn’t run
around the world pulling trigger fingers,
clenching knives, turning steering wheels.
God is dead set against all kinds of
unnatural deaths. This is not to say there
are no unnatural deaths. There are. But
the one thing that should never be said
about any violent death like Alex’s death
is that it is the will of God. My own
consolation lies in knowing that it was
not the will of God that Alex died - but
that when the waves closed over the
sinking car, God’s heart was the first of
all hearts to break.”
The tsunami of 2004 killed thousands.
American television evangelists declared that God
was punishing Muslims and Hindus for the
ways they treated Christians.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed thousands,
mostly black people, and Franklin Graham,
Billy Graham’s son, announced that God
had targeted New Orleans because
it was a wicked city, sexually perverse.
Those are lies about God.
God does not punish people by storms.
When a typhoon, a hurricane, a tornado
wipes out a town and kills its children
God is not against the people;
God is with them.
Our favourite passage of Scripture is Psalm 23
which tells us that even when we go through
the valley of the shadow of death, God
is with us.
We’re frustrated because God doesn’t explain
why certain bad things happen to good people.
God doesn’t explain; God comforts.
God doesn’t comfort us by kissing our wounds
and saying, “There, there. All better now.”
God gives us strength to face the worst.
And in doing that we come to realize we are not alone.
Rabbi Kushner, also wrote a book about Psalm 23.
He knows he will be strengthened at his own death.
“When my time comes, I will feel less alone
because I know that God is not only grieving
for me but is with me at that moment.”
Some people blame people with AIDS for
their own predicament.
They got AIDS because they shared a needle,
or because they were sexually promiscuous,
or because they didn’t protect themselves.
I remember a minister afflicted with AIDS
who came to our clergy group to be hugged.
He said to us,
“You’d be amazed at how many people
are afraid to touch me. They won’t even
shake hands with me. Good Christian
people, nurses and doctors, won’t come
near me. They know I’m not contagious
but they fear me, they fear being close to
me. The only people I know who will hug
me are ministers and priests. That’s why
I’ve come to be with you today. In a few
weeks or months I’ll be dead. Today I’m
very lonely and I need love and support.
I know you. I know you’ll give me what
We ministers in our group knew this man was a
homosexual but we also knew that it was
among homosexuals that he received
the love he needed.
When he came to us
we received him literally with open arms.
We hugged and kissed him; a month later he died.
But he died knowing that God was with him.
That’s who we were for him - the agents of God.
God had not rejected him but was hugging him.
He died knowing that God would go with him
through death to new life.
The truth of the matter is that
God does not reject;
God does not condemn;
God does not punish;
God does not send us to hell.
God is our Father, our Mother, who loves us
and will never let us go.
What about those Bible verses which indicate that
if we don’t do as God commands,
then God will punish us
by sending us to hell?
You can struggle with those verses if you want;
I can’t be bothered because I know
that God is love.
Evil and suffering seem to show God does not love us.
We very quickly take the blame upon ourselves.
We ask questions like these:
“What have I done to deserve this pain?”
“Where did I go wrong that my son is sick?”
“For what is God punishing me?”
Can’t we see that by asking such questions
we’re saying that God is a monster?
If God sent the tsunami to punish
Muslims and Hindus for hurting Christians then God is a monster.
If God sent the tornados to destroy homes and farms to teach us some moral lesson,
then God is a monster.
If God refuses to rescue us from
and sadistic sickness
that certainly raises questions for us
but God doesn’t reverse the choices we make or save us
from the consequences
of those choices.
In love God watches us struggle with
evil and suffering and then God empowers us
to go on dealing with those things.
That may not be what we want and we may not
understand it, but that’s God’s way.
But even more difficult to understand
is the unmerited love that God has for us.
God doesn’t give us what we deserve;
God gives us better.
God doesn’t give us what we want;
God gives us more.
God doesn’t give us what we hope for;
God give us higher than that.
I don’t know about you, but I hope I can
handle the evil and suffering that come my way
because I know I am blessed by the
love of God which will see me
through all of life and all
of death to new life