The most frequently asked question
Jean Paul Sartre, a renowned French existentialist whose family perished in the Nazi death camps, once remarked, “I don’t believe in God ...; I do, however, believe in the death camps.” What he meant was simple but profoundly disturbing ...
It’s that very line of thought which gives rise to the most frequently asked question posed by agnostics and atheists ...
“If God is as loving as you claim he is - if, as you insist, his very nature is love - why does he permit so much suffering and heartache in the world - all the war, famine, disease, and injustice? Why?”
And, tragically, it’s a question most Christians don’t handle too well ...
Finding the right answer is a matter of digging down deep into the foundational core of the Christian Faith - to a Biblical truth so basic and so fundamental that we tend to overlook it - much like overlooking the importance of the air we breathe or the water we drink; and, then, drawing out its implications
The Human Condition
When Adam and Eve sinned, it entailed consequences far beyond anything they ever could have imagined: it’s not just that they sinned, it’s that they became sinners; it’s that sin worked its way into the very fabric of their being – their spiritual, emotional, and physical DNA.
Furthermore, it’s not simply that they became sinners; but, because God is holy and righteous, it’s that they became condemned sinners - with a sentence of death hanging over their heads.
Yes, Adam and Eve eventually died, but their death wasn’t immediate and, even more significantly, they were allowed to produce children – offspring who continued the race they’d corrupted.
Adam - the Father of a corrupted and condemned humanity - its progenitor!
It’s no wonder ...
Is it any wonder, then, that - given mankind’s inherent corruption and the condemnation we intuitively sense - anguish, suffering, and heartache have been our on-going lot? The terror spawned by war; the horror of slavery - still today plaguing millions; noisome disease, a mother’s agony at her child’s grave site; crippling accidents, birth defects, wrongful convictions; the guilty set free; the grief arising from infidelity and divorce; abusive authority; and the list goes on and on - there’s no end to it.
But that’s not all. Nature itself has been dragged into sin’s wake. Animals and plants grapple with disease and death as well. Even the earth itself is crushed under its weight - and reflects the anguish it causes: the 2005 Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake that leveled Haiti, the Japenese tsunami - it all bears witness to the horror wrought by sin.
For we know that all creation groans ... in pain . . .
Clearly, all that suffering could have been avoided had God immediately carried out the execution Adam’s condemnation called for - before procreation had occurred and a sin-ridden human race had emerged; but that would have entailed our execution as well. Why? Because you and I, and countless generations before us, were and are in Adam - and God saw us there - you and me - and billions of others he didn’t want to see perish.
That’s because God is not only holy and righteous, he’s also merciful - willing - indeed, yearning - to forgive us and reconcile us to himself.
. . . the Lord is long suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
~2 Peter 3:9
Generation after generation ...
Consequently, God has permitted generation after generation of men and women to be born - sifting through each one for persons prepared to acknowledge their sinfulness and avail themselves of his mercy.
The cost of mercy: unjudged sin
But while God holds judgment in abeyance, pleading with every single man, woman, and child ever born to repent and be saved, sin runs rampant - and with it heartache and anguish. And there’s the rub: God’s mercy carries misery and sorrow in its wake!
The simple, unavoidable truth is that God’s mercy can’t reach us without preserving the horrifying, sin-stained quagmire we’ve created - that surrounds and envelopes us – that, at bottom, is actually composed of you and me. That’s the awful truth.
It bears repeating: to get to us, to you and me, with his mercy, God has withheld judgment of sin; but that makes inevitable the misery and suffering that unjudged sin produces. There it is: one of the most profound mysteries of scripture: lying behind all the suffering and torment that afflicts the human race is God’s mercy.
The answer to the question “How can a merciful God permit so much pain and suffering?” is key to answering a few additional questions that atheists and agnostics often pose: The first is “Do all men and women really need a savior? Does the Bible really teach that?” And the second is “Why does salvation depend upon Christ being fully God? Does the Bible really teach that as well?” All three questions turn upon one issue: the nature of mankind’s condemnation and how it’s resolved in God’s mercy.
The testimony of scripture ...
One of the most beloved verses in the New Testament is John 3:16 - because it so obviously highlights the love and mercy of God.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
However, there’s a darker side to it that believers are forever overlooking. John 3:16 confirms the truth of our inherent condemnation - that apart from God’s mercy it’s inescapable. And it does so in Jesus’ very own words.
It tells us (1) that the mankind is already under condemnation and (2) that Jesus’ whole mission revolves around God’s desire to rescue us from that condemnation.
John 3:18 provides still further testimony - once again in Jesus’ very own words ...
He who believes in Him (Jesus, the Son of Man) is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
It’s not that we will be condemned; it’s that we’re already condemned.
Likewise, John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner, sent by God to prepare the way for him, declares exactly the same truth a little further on in John 3:36 ...
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
It’s not that disbelief occasions condemnation and, hence, the wrath of God, but, rather, belief in Jesus absolves its otherwise intrinsic presence.
The sense of the verse is perhaps better conveyed by a slight change in the wording …
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, because the wrath of God remains upon him ...
The wrath of God remains - meaning mankind is born under condemnation; it’s the human condition. That’s the starting point of New Testament theology. It’s the very backdrop against which the sum and substance of the messianic mission is cast.
The trial has already occurred
It’s a starkly simple truth, but one we’re forever overlooking: man is not awaiting trial. He’s not awaiting an assessment of his standing before God – whether he’s innocent or guilty – deserving of life or death. No ...
The world, then, is precisely what Franz Kafka suggests it is: a holding cell where man awaits execution of the sentence pronounced against him.
And the New Testament brooks no compromise. It’s in this sense that man is what the Apostle Paul in Romans 9:22 calls “a vessel of wrath fitted for destruction”
What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction…
The phrase “vessel of wrath fitted for destruction” reveals mankind’s plight in the form of a terrifying word-picture: a man locked in a holding cell - tried, convicted, and sentenced to death - awaiting the inevitable, his execution - once again, a vessel of wrath fitted for destruction.
It’s essentially the same phrase Paul uses later in Ephesians 2:3, “children of wrath” –
… among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
… except that in Ephesians 2:3 Paul makes explicit what he leaves implicit in Romans 9:22 – that all men, not just some men, are, from their very inception, vessels of wrath…
That makes the world little more than a prison housing the condemned.
A little more thought leads atheists and agnostics - and not a few Christians as well - to ask still another compelling question: “How can God extend mercy to sinners? Does God extend mercy haphazardly?”
“Don’t be concerned about your sin, I’ll simply ignore it - I’ll just let it go; after all, I’m God. I can do whatever I want.”
No! To do so would call into question his hatred of sin - and that, quite clearly, would undermine his claim to holiness; indeed, it would erode the very nature of his godhood.
God only extends mercy through sacrifice - which is what all the Old Testament offerings were meant to typify. The sacrifice is meant to forcefully reveal God’s hatred of sin whenever he extends mercy; that God’s mercy must never be misinterpreted to mean that he condones sin or that he dismisses it cavalierly when he passes over it.
The cost of the sacrifice is obviously the key: the more costly the sacrifice, the greater its efficacy - meaning the more forcefully it displays God’s hatred of sin whenever he tenders mercy.
And therein lies the dilemma: search throughout the entire universe - its every nook and cranny. Look under every stone and behind every rock. Examine every speck of cosmic dust. Add it all up - the whole of it - it’s pitifully inadequate. There is no sacrifice within the created order that’s sufficient - that can uphold God’s honor and vindicate his righteousness. Nothing at all. That’s because God’s righteousness can only be upheld by God himself. Only God himself can testify to its infinite worth.
If a sacrifice is to be offered that upholds God’s honor and vindicates his righteousness whenever he passes over sin, it must be the sacrifice of God himself. Christ, the Second Person of the Triune God, himself fully God and co-equal with the Father – is just such a sacrifice - indeed, the only sacrifice. Does God hate sin? God drained the vaults of heaven to prove it. Look at the Cross! Who’s on it? It’s God himself. That’s how much God hates sin. And with God’s hatred of sin fully displayed, he is able to extend mercy without compromising his righteousness. Mercy is costly - very costly.
But not only does the Cross prove God’s hatred of sin, it also reveals his breathtaking love of mankind - of you and me. Who could possibly have imagined that God the Father would deliver up God the Son to the Cross - and that God the Son would willingly submit to it - all because he loves us - you and me - and doesn’t want any of us to perish - even though our condemnation is so infinitely just? Throughout all eternity, we will forever be plumbing its depths - without ever getting to its bottom, staggered by the love it reveals. How much does God love you? Fasten your gaze upon the Cross ...