Pandemics. Cancer. Tornadoes. Crime. War. The challenge of reconciling suffering and evil with belief in an all-good, all-powerful God is the perennial problem of evil. Although humanity through the centuries has been struck by the challenge of suffering and evil, the past few years have particularly renewed the problem in our culture. Historically, each religion has brought its intellectual and spiritual resources to grapple with this problem. Pagan polytheisms seek to appease unpredictable petulant divine personalities and thus are purely prudential. Hinduism simply levels good and evil in Brahman, the all-pervasive Great Everything, thereby dissolving the problem. Buddhism rests on the recognition that existence is suffering, making nonexistence, Nirvana, the goal. The list of religious answers to evil is long.

Yet the Christian understanding that God is perfect in love, holiness, and power – together with the affirmation that life and the world are precious and valuable—makes the problem extremely difficult. According to a Barna poll, evil and suffering are the leading reason for nonbelievers to reject God and a major cause of crises of faith in believers. Answers in nonChristian religions vary greatly, but answers in the Christian community vary as well, and they are not equally helpful.

Pop Christianity peddles the idea that there is always a particular reason why things happen. A favorite answer is that suffering and hardship are God’s way of teaching or correcting us, but this blanket answer implies an arbitrary deity and fails miserably to address the suffering and death of children, as Ivan Karamazov poignantly insisted. It can sometimes seem that the emerging lesson of Job against miserable comforters – that there really is innocent suffering – has been replaced by simplistic ways of sorting out good and evil in the world. Too many lay persons think that church membership assures them of good life circumstances. As C. S. Lewis warned, “Those who mistake their relative prosperity and ease for their blessedness have a bitter lesson to learn.”

A more helpful Christian approach is to focus on God’s purposes: relationship with free moral and spiritual beings created in his image. Then we must realize that God chose to pursue this purpose by creating a physical world run by laws that are out of our control. Balanced bodily processes are a blessing, but sometimes a cell miscopies and starts a cancerous tumor. Free will is essential to relationship with God, but misuse of free will to reject the Creator damages the finite creature. Interestingly, both a framework of natural laws and a range of free choice, allows latitude in the creation for alternative possible outcomes. Sometimes negative circumstances “just happen” – no special reason, no big theological lesson. By chance, we are told, Ahab was killed in battle by an aimless arrow that struck in the joint of his armor. By chance, we are told, the Samaritan happened along the way and chose to show pity on a man beaten and robbed. Nondetermined contingency – not top-down control – is vital to a relational understanding of God’s purposes.

Romans 8:28 is correctly translated “God works in all things (or all circumstances) for the good of those who love him” – not as “all circumstances work together” which is false to our experience. Circumstances do not always work out: sometimes little children die needlessly, good human beings suffer terribly, a peaceful nation is attacked by a hostile nation. However, in the strange mix of circumstances that make up our world (and always have), there are also love, joy, self-giving, beauty, and many other created goods. When bad things happen, God works with those persons who cooperate with him and gives his presence to those who look to him. There are no guarantees of preconceived outcomes, but there can be the true sense that our blessedness is not in our circumstances but in our relation to a loving God who will never forsake us.

Dr. Peterson’s new book Monotheism, Suffering, and Evil was published May 2022:

Dr. Michael L. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy of Religion as Asbury Theological Seminary.