The images are sadly familiar. Buildings ripped from their foundations. Corpses mingled with debris. Parents and friends grieving for lost loved ones. Flowers and candles and makeshift memorials. New Orleans, Newtown, New York, Littleton.
In one sense tragedies like these will never be old news. And when new disasters inevitably arrive, the question on the lips of so many is an age old query: “Where was God?”
One Wrong Answer
One answer is not going to work: the picture of a broken-hearted God, victimized, agonizing over events that are out of His control.
This “finite God” view is Rabbi Harold Kushner’s answer in Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Evil is bigger than God whose hands are tied by the laws of nature and the will of man. Limited in power, He weeps with us at a world out of control.
According to Kushner, this should bring us comfort. “God, who neither causes nor prevents tragedies, helps by inspiring people to help,” he writes.
Clearly, the God Rabbi Kushner has in mind is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who brought the universe into existence with a single thought. This is not the God of the Exodus or the empty tomb. A God equally victimized by the march of evil may commiserate with other victims, but He cannot inspire or rescue. He is not worthy of praise, prayer, or trust. Nor is there any real comfort to be gained from one so impotent.
Another Wrong Answer
But what alternative is there? How can anyone believe in God in the face of mind-numbing tragedy? The great 20th century British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk about God while kneeling at the bed of a dying child.
It is a powerful image. Like the three-word sound byte, “Where was God?,” it strikes many Christians dumb. How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?
They might consider Christian philosopher William Lane Craig’s response: What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say at the bed of that dying child—or, for that matter, at the funerals of thousands of dead in Katrina’s wake, or to the parents of 20 dead school children in Newtown, Connecticut, or to the families of 2,977 dead on 9/11? Too bad? Tough luck? That’s the way it goes? No happy ending, no silver lining, nothing but devastating, tragic, senseless evil?
No, that also won’t work for an important reason. In a world bereft of God, there are many ways to characterize hurricanes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, or malicious bloodletting: unpleasant, sad, painful, even ghastly.
Yet if God doesn’t exist, the one thing we can never do is call such human destruction “evil” or wanton murder “wicked.” If in virtue of these tragedies one concludes God doesn’t exist, then the carnage ceases to be morally tragic at all, if by that word we mean a genuine breach of goodness.
Judgments like these require some transcendent reference point, some way of keeping score. Words like “evil” or “tragic” are parasitic on a standard of moral perfection. C.S. Lewis pointed out that a portrait is a good or bad likeness depending on how it compares with the “perfect” original. But if there is no standard, then there is no “good” or “bad.”
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust,” Lewis reasoned. “But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call something crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
Evil is spoiled goodness. That’s Lewis’s point. We already know this. Note the words we use to describe it: unrighteousness, immorality, impurity. Evil depends on the good. Where does such goodness come from, though?
This point was explored in the movie, “The Quarrel.” The main characters, Hersh and Chaim, were boyhood friends who separated in a dispute over God and evil. Then came the Holocaust. Each thought the other had perished. After the war, they reunite by chance and immediately become embroiled once again in their boyhood quarrel.
Hersh, now a rabbi, offers this challenge to the secularist Chaim:
If there’s nothing in the universe that’s higher than human beings, then what’s morality? Well, it’s a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better?
Do you begin to see the horror of this? If there is no Master of the universe, then who’s to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God, then the people that murdered your wife and kids did nothing wrong.
If there is no God, it’s hard to even begin making sense of the notions of evil or moral tragedy in an objective sense. The events that trouble us are reduced to mere “stuff” that happens. There are different kinds of “stuff,” to be sure, some we like (Mother Teresa), and some we don’t (Newtown), but in a universe bereft of God it’s all reduced to “stuff” in the end.
We know better, though. Words like “wicked,” “tragic,” and “evil” are on the lips of everyone constantly. We cannot describe our daily experience of the world without them.
Yet the questions remain: Why doesn’t God intervene? Why is He inactive—apparently impotent—when He could restrain both wayward winds and wicked people? This protest rings hollow, though, because we don’t really want God to end evil, not all of it.
Picking and Choosing Our Moral Tragedies
Why does this question about God only come up with magnum tragedies—like a hurricane or a schoolyard massacre—or when we are personally stunned by deadly disease or financial ruin? What about the mass of evil that slips by us every day unnoticed and unlamented because we are the perpetrators of the evil, not its victims?
On December 14, 2012—the same day 26 were murdered, most of them children, at Sandy Hook elementary school—I wonder how many Americans were committing adultery around the country? What of the cumulative effect of the personal pain and destruction that resulted from all those individual acts of sin? What of the unplanned pregnancies (and subsequent abortions), the sexually transmitted diseases, the shame and embarrassment?
On August 30, 2005 a day when Katrina left so many homeless in the Gulf states, what of the children whose homes were broken through marriages destroyed by infidelity? What of the severed trust, the emotional wounding, the sting of betrayal, the shattered families? What of the traumatized children cast adrift emotionally, destined as adults to act out the anguish of these disloyalties?
One careless act of unfaithfulness leaves in its wake decades of pain and destruction and often generations of brokenness. And—to be sure—this evil was multiplied thousands of times over around the country on the same day the levees broke in Louisiana or when disaster struck in Connecticut.
I saw no outcry, though, no moral indignation in the local papers or national news because God permitted this evil. Why not? Because we don’t complain when evil makes us feel better, only when it makes us feel bad.
If the truth were known, we do not judge disasters based on unprejudiced moral assessment, but rather on what is painful, awkward, or inconvenient to us. We don’t ask, “Where is God?” when another’s pain brings us profit instead of loss.
Why? Because we don’t want God sniffing around the dark recesses of our own evil conduct. Instead, we fight intervention. We don’t really want Him stopping us from hurting others. We only cry “foul” when He doesn’t stop others from hurting us.
The problem of evil is much bigger than hundreds of drowned people or thousands of homeless. It includes all the ordinary corruptions that please us, the hundreds of small vices you and I approve of every day. It entails not only what offends us, but what offends God.
The answer to the question “Why doesn’t God stop the evil?” is the same answer to the question “Why doesn’t God stop me every time I do wrong?” There is a virtuous quality to human moral choice that both dignifies us and makes serious evil possible.
The rules God applies to a serial killer are the same rules He applies to you. If you want God to clean up evil, He might just say, “Okay, let’s start with you.” If you want Him to stop murderers, then you have to be just as willing to let Him stop you every time you do what is evil by His standards. And that covers a lot of ground. Most people won’t sit still for that.
Sometimes the consequences of our evil actions are long-lived. It’s hard to know how much has been spoiled by man’s initial rebellion. However, the prophecy that Adam would now encounter thorns and thistles is suggestive (Genesis 3:18). Ever since man has ventured forth from Eden, the world has been a dangerous place. All the forces of nature are wonderful things in their right place, but ominous foes in a world twisted by sin.
What Should God Do?
When people ask “Where was God?” I ask “What precisely do you expect God to do? If you were in His place, what would you do?” If you would use your power to stop evil, would you punish it or prevent it? Either choice presents you with problems.
One reason God doesn’t wipe out all evil immediately is that the alternative would be worse for us. This becomes evident by asking a simple question: If God heard your prayer to eliminate evil and destroyed it all at midnight tonight, where would you be at 12:01?
The discomfiting reality is that evil deeds can never be isolated from the evil doer. Our prints are on the smoking gun. Each one of us is guilty in some capacity, and we know it. That’s the problem.
While reading on the Littleton shooting several years ago, I stumbled upon a refreshing bit of honesty and moral clarity by John Hewitt in a piece entitled “Seeking to Make Sense Where There Is None.” Hewitt wrote:
We would rather think of bad acts as the unfortunate consequences of discoverable and remedial social and personal conditions. Yet it is precisely the account we do not wish to believe that may best capture what happened in Littleton. The two dead members of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” together with their fellows, may simply have chosen evil in circumstances where others choose to play football or to crave membership in the National Honor Society. [emphasis added]
Simply put, humans—you and I—make choices that cause evil. Consequently, any judicial action God might take today would pin us all under the gavel. When God wipes out evil, He’s going to do a complete job. C.S. Lewis soberly observed, “I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does....When the author walks on the stage the play is over.”
No, God hasn’t banished evil from His kingdom—not yet. The Bible describes a future time when God will wipe away every tear and repair the effects of evil on the world. Men will no longer endure the ravages of wickedness or be victimized by bouts with nature. And no one will ever ask the question, “Where was God?”
Until then, though, God has chosen a different strategy, a better plan, one that’s moral on a higher level. It’s a plan that ultimately deals with evil, but allows room for mercy as well. It’s called forgiveness.
The Patience of God
God is waiting. Patience, not lack of goodness or lack of ability, stays God’s hand from writing the last chapter of human history. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness,” Peter reminds us, “but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God is patiently waiting for people to turn to Him.
Suffering, tragedy, and profligate evil now function as warning signals. Like the ache of a limb out of joint, the pain of living in a broken world tells us that something is amiss. If God took away the pain, we’d never deal with the disease. And the disease will kill us, sooner or later.
Why doesn’t God do something about evil? God has done something, the most profound thing imaginable. He has sent His Son to die for evil men. Because we are ultimately the source of evil, God would be entirely justified in punishing us. Yet He chose instead to offer mercy. He took the punishment due you and I and poured it out on His Son Jesus so He could make forgiveness available to anyone who asks.
God is not the author of evil. Neither is He incapable of responding nor unwilling to act. But His remedy for evil is not capricious. He doesn’t obliterate us, the offenders, with one angry blow. Instead He waits.
Bertrand Russell had nothing to say while kneeling at the bed of a dying child. He could have spoken of the patience and mercy of God. He ought to have mentioned the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ and experience God’s forgiveness. He might have remembered that a redemptive God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). He may have considered the Gospel, the only source of hope for a broken world.
But Russell could not. As an atheist he had surrendered those resources. We can do better.
Our dilemma should not be why God allows evil. Instead, our wonder should be why He would pay such an incredible price to rescue us at all when we have rebelled so completely against Him.
When this reality grabs our hearts, we will get down on our knees and ask forgiveness instead of criticizing God for not doing enough.
Putting Your Knowledge into Action
- First, be sympathetic to this problem. It hits all of us sooner or later, and sometimes with great force in very personal ways.
- Second, don’t let others leverage the problem of evil into an argument against God. It doesn’t work. Ask them how they would answer for evil if there were no God. Further, how would they answer the problem of good?
- Remember the Bertrand Russell challenge and William Lane Craig’s powerful response. It takes a liability and turns it into an asset.
- When someone asks “How does Christianity explain tragedy?” say “Christianity doesn’t explain it; Christianity predicts it. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if the Christian world iew is true.”
- Explain that God’s answer to evil at the moment is not to destroy those who perpetrate evil—each one of us—but to patiently extend an offer of clemency, forgiveness through His Son.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken, 1981), 140, quoted in Norman Geisler and William Watkins, Worlds Apart (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 203.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 31.
 “The Quarrel,” directed by Eli Cohen, released 1991.
Of course, relativistic morality—grounded in personal preference or cultural convention—fares just fine because it’s not a true moral system, but rather a denial of universal moral obligations.
John P. Hewitt, “Seeking to Make Sense Where There Is None,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1999.