Why do appalling things happen? Why do events such as the massacre last Sunday in Las Vegas occur? Why do the seemingly innocent suffer?
For the professing Christian who says that God not only exists but that he is compassionate and all-powerful, it is one of life’s toughest questions. And I have to say that there are no complete answers. So what can we say about this profound and perplexing subject? As this is a subject that often crops up in conversations let me briefly touch on a number of points.
First of all, we need to express verbally and practically our compassion for those who suffer, and pray for them.
Second, at an appropriate time – and we need to pray for wisdom about the timing – it is good to be prepared to discuss this issue when God’s existence is questioned.
Many people use the following argument to say that a good and loving God cannot exist: ‘A God who is all-powerful and all-loving would end suffering and pain for his creatures. BUT, suffering and pain exist. Therefore a God who is all-powerful and all-loving does not exist.’
At first sight, this reasoning makes sense. And we should be prepared to acknowledge that when we are talking with others. However, it is useful to point to the response by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga who conclude, not that God does not exist, but that ‘A God who is all powerful and all loving has a bigger plan’.
This, of course, raises another question: ‘Is there any evidence of a bigger plan and if so, what is it?’ To answer this we need to explore themes we find in the New Testament.
God’s bigger plan. Colossians 2:13-15 reads: You, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Captives. The Bible sees history as divided into two great eras. Before Jesus came there was the present age— the world. Now that Jesus has come a new era has begun—the age to come. For the present, this stands alongside the first era. Yes, God has always been in control, but the first era is in bondage to sin and evil. In it we are captive to moral laws we can’t keep. Even when God’s written law was revealed, we couldn’t keep it.
The accuser, satan, has power over us because he holds a catalog of our failures to present to God’s court of justice. God, being the perfect and just God he is, has no other choice but to condemn us to death because sin – treachery against him – is a capital offense.
C.S. Lewis captures these elements in his Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmund had betrayed Peter, Susan and Lucy, and Aslan himself. The white witch demanded Edmund’s life saying he had broken ‘the laws of the deep.’ “His life is forfeit,” she shrieked.
This is our natural condition. Alienated from God, we are in the power of spiritual forces we cannot defeat, and we are en route to a grave we can’t avoid. And so we are captive to the pain, suffering and evil that we have brought upon ourselves.
But then came Jesus. At a single stroke he smashed the bars of the spiritual prison of the first age. He wiped out the moral debt of laws we couldn’t obey and disarmed the demonic powers we couldn’t overcome. Furthermore, he abolished death whose clutches we couldn’t escape.
How is this extraordinary freedom achieved? Paul tells us twice: By the cross. For Paul, the first era has given way to the world to come. The cross is where Jesus Christ has potentially turned our captivity into a glorious liberty.
Having created us, not as robots but in his image, God gave us the capacity of choice and with it the potential to turn from him and experience the consequential suffering. The more we leave God out of the equation of life, the greater the darkness will be.
In an extraordinary act of generous love, God’s bigger plan has been to use his vast resources to destroy the enmity – our hostility towards him and towards one another, and the suffering and pain that follow – without destroying the enemy – you and me.
It’s a plan we would never have dreamed of – God himself providing the means of restoring us as the glory of his creation. No wonder Paul the Apostle wrote, The sufferings of this present age cannot be compared with the glory that is to be revealed (Romans 8:18).