I recently read a piece lauding the blessings of the people who were supposed to be at the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2002, but in small ways, they were detained by the mishaps of life, faulty alarms, children dallying, traffic, etc. These people were saying how good and protective God was to have saved them from being among the carnage of that morning.
My question is: Where was God's protection for all the thousands of people who were caught, injured or killed in this tragedy? Where were God's blessings for those people? I just do not understand why God allowed this or allows all the pain and suffering in this world. I do not understand how he can stand by and allow these things. I do not understand how he can allow children to be murdered and abused or how can he allow any of the murderous people in this world to do the things they do? He does not seem to be protecting people like these people in the email claim. I just don't understand. I feel very sad when I think of all these things and wake up every morning with these questions and feelings.
You ask an excellent question, so I hope you will not mind if I take the long path toward answering your question. The foundation for the perplexing issue that you raise is based on a misunderstanding of why suffering exists in the world.
When atrocities occur, it is common for people to wonder why God would allow such extremely evil events to happen. Atheists will use these examples of obvious evil as an argument against the existence of God. "If God is so good, then why is there evil in the world? A good God would have prevented the tragedy on September 11th from ever happening!" Yet, since evil does exist and tragedies do happen, people conclude that either God doesn't exist, or that God isn't so good, or that God doesn't care.
But have you ever thought about reversing the argument? If evil is so prevalent, then why is there righteousness in the world? Could we conclude that since good does exist at times, then evil must be imaginary? Hmm, the argument doesn't look nearly so firm in the other direction, does it?
What Makes a Thing Evil?
Before addressing why evil is allowed to exist, we must first understand what is evil. Now, we don't have to look far to name recent events that everyone would agree are evil. And for each evil that exists, it is notable that some sin was involved in creating that evil. I would argue that the two terms are actually equivalent; sin is evil. Now some sins are more abhorrent than others. The cause of the death or suffering of innocent children is seen as a greater problem than the death of an adult who was "looking for trouble." The loss of thousands of innocent peoples' lives strikes us as more evil than an individual's lie. And yet, we must understand all sins, all evils, great and small, are wrong.
John defines sin as the breaking of the law. "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4). In other words, the very existence or recognition of evil argues that one or more laws were broken. Unless a law existed stating that something was wrong, there can be no evil or sin because there was no violation of the law. "For where there is no law there is no transgression" (Romans 4:15).
Some have grasped this concept, but then foolishly argue that the quickest way to remove evil is to remove the law. For example, this nation has a drug problem. How do we solve the problem? For some, the ideal solution is to legalize the sale and use of drugs. We have tried such a "solution" for other problems. It was once against the law to have sex outside of marriage. Most of those laws have been dropped when consenting adults are involved. But consider this: Has the sin of fornication disappeared because the laws were removed? Has it decreased since it was made legal? Obviously not. One recent survey noted that people living together without marriage has increased by nearly 1000% in the last forty years! Think about what this means for the drug problem. Do you honestly believe that legalizing drugs will reduce the number of people using drugs?
The problem is that evil still exists even when we do not acknowledge it in our laws. "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned-- (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. ...)" (Romans 5:12-14). Even before Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai, sins still existed in the world. Long before God recorded on tablets of stone "You shall not murder" people were still guilty of committing murder. The best anyone could claim is "I didn't know it was illegal!" But does our ignorance mean that the law doesn't exist for us personally? Obviously not. Yet if we truly had no way of knowing the law, judges will sometimes be lenient toward us. Sin was in the world before Moses; therefore, a law must have also existed even if it wasn't in a written form. God did take into account people's lack of knowledge regarding right and wrong (Acts 17:30), yet the consequences of those sins still remained because each time a person sins, he creates consequences that sometimes have tragic results.
Putting on blinders so that you will not acknowledge the existence of evil does not make the evil go away, nor does it make it any less evil. Still, we need to dig deeper into the problem of evil. Where does sin, and the evil that accompanies it, originate?
If we put a fork in a road, people must choose which direction they will take. Because a decision must be made, I can guarantee you that everyone will not choose the same direction. Even if I put up a sign explaining the desirability of one direction over the other, I can still guarantee that the undesirable path will still be used.
Sin comes from people making the wrong choice. It comes from man and not from God. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:12-17). We all have desires that are necessary for us to live -- desires to eat, drink, sleep, to be liked, and so on. Satan uses these natural tendencies to place us in situations where the satisfaction of our desire would cause us to break a command of God. It is a trap; but, it is a snare that we willingly walk into because we want what is offered to us.
Not only does Satan tempt us, but our fellow men already caught up in sin will use our own desires to further their own goals. "For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage" (II Peter 2:18-19).
Temptation is so prevalent that none are immune to sin. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (I John 1:8). Or as Paul warned, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (I Corinthians 10:12). Yet, the situation is not hopeless. God remains in control, even when we are tempted to violate His laws. "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (I Corinthians 10:13).
This then leads to another question, "If evil exists, and people will choose to do evil, why did God bother giving men a law?"
You must understand that the existence of a law does not cause people to sin. But the existence of the law does clarify when we do sin. "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. as then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful." (Romans 7:7-13).
The law, being from God, is holy and good. It defines for man what God sees as sin. Unfortunately, the law is also exploited by Satan. By defining sin, it lets us know about options we might not have considered before. Every parent faces this dilemma. We want to warn our children against the dangers present in this world, but we also don't want our children to lose their innocent view of life. Police officers face the dilemma as well. They want to warn people of crimes that are being committed, but they know that some will see the crimes and then set about to copy them. Paul spoke of this same problem. He, by nature, was not a man who coveted what belonged to another person. But upon learning the definition of covetousness through the law, he is now faced with the choice of coveting when he is tempted because he now knows the choice exists. However, because we have been warned in advance by the law, the law leaves us with no excuse when we violate the law.
Why is Evil Allowed to Continue?
To put it simply evil continues to exist because people want it. "An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?" (Jeremiah 5:30-31). As we mentioned before, when given a choice, there will always be some who will pick the wrong path.
Even so, you might wonder why God doesn't remove sinners ... right up to the point in time you realize that it would include removing you and me since everyone sins (Romans 3:23). "Therefore listen to me, you men of understanding: Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to commit iniquity. For He repays man according to his work, and makes man to find a reward according to his way. Surely God will never do wickedly, nor will the Almighty pervert justice. Who gave Him charge over the earth? Or who appointed Him over the whole world? If He should set His heart on it, if He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust" (Job 34:10-15). Actually, if God destroyed every sinner, we wouldn't have gotten past Adam and Eve before mankind would have ceased to exist. Yet God tolerates the existence of sin because it creates a distinction between those striving to do right (and sometimes failing) and those desiring to be wicked (see Romans 7:13 again). When we sin, we see the effect of evil on our lives. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes and acknowledge that God's way is right. We are forced by our sins and the sins of others to acknowledge that God's laws are the best path for man to take.
In addition, the continued existence of sin forces man to be humble before our God. The mess that we make of our lives shows us that we need someone greater than ourselves to lift us up out of our own mire. "Moreover I saw under the sun: In the place of judgment, Wickedness was there; And in the place of righteousness, Iniquity was there. I said in my heart, "God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work." I said in my heart, "Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals."" (Ecclesiastes 3:16-18).
Finally, when we fight against evil, the very battle strengthens us. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (James 1:12). What shape would I be in if I laid in bed all day? Many of us realize that we need regular exercise to stay fit. We could take a passive attitude and say, "Why bother?" Yet, we know that even when we don't fully enjoy it, exercise helps us to enjoy life more fully. Now move this idea to the spiritual plain. What kind of shape would I be in if I never exercised my spiritual muscles? Even though the choices are not always enjoyable, I need to learn to make good decisions to be more fit to serve God.
Why Doesn't Man Do Something About His Own Mess?
Evil continues in this world because many people refuse to recognize sin or that their sins are causing evil. The Jews fell into this trap, as Paul discussed in Romans 2:17-24. We so often want to excuse our sins. When you don't pay a bill, are you not stealing? If you leave out some of your income at tax time, are you not lying? How can one person lead others out of sin if they continue to wallow in sins that they feel are not so bad?
This was a major point in Jesus' sermon on the mount. Murder is awful, but murder is generally proceeded by the sin of anger (Matthew 5:21-22). Adultery is evil but it is proceeded by the sin of lust. Do we condemn sin only when it becomes too much to tolerate it? Or, do we become proactive and cut it close to its roots? We cannot make a half-hearted stand against evil and expect to win. This is an all-or-nothing war! Evil cannot be defeated if we allow sin to continue to exist in our lives.
Why Doesn't God Protect Us From Evil?
If we accept that evil is the result of man's desire to sin, then what is being asked is, "Why doesn't God interfere when men mess up their lives?" The truth is that God has.
Perhaps a story told by Dr. A. A. Hodges will help clarify the issue a bit: One day, a man rushed into the presence of Dr. Witherspoon, an eighteenth-century clergyman. "Dr. Witherspoon," he shouted, "help me to thank God for His wonderful providence! My horse ran away, my buggy was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and behold! I am unharmed." The good doctor smiled benevolently at the inconsistent, imperfect character of the man's religion. "Why," he answered, "I know a Providence a thousand times better than that. I have driven down that rocky road to Princeton hundreds of times, and my horse never ran away and my buggy was never dashed to pieces." Here is a truth few Christians grasp. An accident occurs and we have a seemingly miraculous deliverance. Immediately, we see God's hand in it and praise Him and tell others of His marvelous act of providence. It never occurs to us to thank Him for the times beyond number when we were spared even the accident.
It is commonly believed that nothing will go wrong for a child of God. That was what Job's friends thought. That is why they spent so much effort trying to convince Job that he must have sinned and incurred God's anger. But they were wrong (Job 42:7).
God doesn't promise to protect the righteous from all harm. Paul obviously suffered for the cause of Christ. "Are they ministers of Christ? --I speak as a fool--I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness ..." (II Corinthians 11:23-27). Perhaps we should ask where was Paul's protection. Even Jesus, the Son of God, suffered a cruel death at the hand of evil men. Why was he not protected?
What God has promised is "that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). First, notice that this promise is limited to "those who are the called according to His purpose." In other words, God makes this promise to faithful Christians. True Christians will not let difficulties stand in their way of serving God. "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: "For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:31-37). God is able to take every event in our lives and make it work for our ultimate good.
Take, as an example, the life of Joseph. He was sold into slavery by his own brothers. His master's wife falsely accused him of attempted rape, for which he was thrown into prison. When an opportunity arose for Joseph's case to be brought before Pharaoh, the man whom Joseph helped forgot about him for two years. Joseph understood why he suffered. He told his brothers, "you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive" (Genesis 50:20).
When people face hardships, it will cause some to turn bitter, it will cause the faith of some to grow cold, it will cause some to blame their God; but for those who remain true, it helps them to keep focused on the real goal -- heaven! We want to be free from the corruption that sin has brought to this world. "Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (II Corinthians 4:16-18). This is why James could boldly tell us, "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4). Paul noted this as well, "we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4).
Tragedies refine us. They shape us. "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:6-7).
God can take the worse that man can dish out and turn it into a benefit for His purpose and His people, if we will but hold on, trusting that God knows what He is doing. "So we may boldly say: "The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?"" (Hebrews 13:6).
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, "He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust." Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you. Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked. Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot. "Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him My salvation." (Psalms 91:1-16).
Good can come out of even deep tragedies, such as September 11th. But that ultimate good will only benefit those who have given their hearts into the keeping of the Almighty. "For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (II Timothy 1:12).