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"The BIG Questions”
Part 3:

"How Can God Allow
Suffering and Hell?”

Based on Habakkuk 3:16-19 and Selected Texts
Delivered on March 6 & 7, 2010
by David J. Claassen

Copyright 2010 by David J. Claassen

We live in a messed-up, broken world. Man's inhumanity against man was made shockingly real on 9/11. It has happened many other times in the past, with the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the genocide in Rwanda. There are natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti and the hurricane in New Orleans. There's cancer, strokes, heart attacks, birth defects, and much more that goes wrong when it comes to human health.

Just in the last week I've been made vividly aware of the pain and suffering we face with the six people we've had in the hospitals. I've also been following the trial in Iowa in which Mark Becker of my home town of Parkersburg, Iowa was convicted of killing the well-known, much-loved football coach of Parkersburg. The coach had prayed for that young man in a Sunday school class at the request of his parents just three days before he was murdered by him. Diann and I have also been praying this week for both of our children, who are facing serious, challenging issues.

It's a fallen, broken, messed-up, evil world. Given the fact that God created the world, this poses a problem. Someone has put it this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent [all-powerful]. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent [evil]. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” This isn’t a new question. The question as I just quoted it was posed by Epicurus, who lived from 341-270 BC!

Why is this such a broken, messed-up world if God, whom we believe to be all good, made it? We'll try to address the question by first going back to when the world broke.

When the World Broke

In the account in the Bible we find that every once in a while during creation God stepped back, considered what He made, and declared it good. The text states that after making everything, having created the whole world and everything in it, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) What God made was good — very good. So what happened?

The first human made a bad choice, and so did his wife. Adam and Eve disobeyed God. It was a cataclysmic event that we can't fully understand, though we can more fully grasp its ramifications. Because Adam and Eve were the first humans from whom we all descend, we not only possess their physical DNA but also the DNA of their hearts and souls, which no longer was perfect. We have inherited their tendency to sin; it's called original sin. We aren’t sinful because we sin; we sin because we’re sinful.

The ramifications of the fall of the first humans also resulted in the world’s being broken down into a fallen world. Somehow, in a way we can't fully comprehend, it's all connected.

God itemized a few of the general ramifications of the wrong choice that the first man and woman made. First, there will be physical pain, starting with childbirth. “With pain you will give birth to your children.” (Genesis 3:16) There will also be pain in relationships. God mentions the most intimate of relationships, that of husband and wife: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16) We could study this in detail, but suffice it to say that because of sin, the marital relationship — and all human relationships — will now be different: no longer perfect, no longer ideal. There will be struggles to make a living, with work being hard and frustrating: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” (Genesis 3:19) And life on earth will now be limited: there will come a time to die.

I’ve often wondered how much of the natural violence on the Earth is the result of its being a broken world. I wonder about violent weather such as floods and droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes, high winds and lightning. I wonder about tectonic plates that shift suddenly, resulting in earthquakes, and ruptures in the earth's surface like boils on skin that erupt in volcanic fury and destruction. Is all of this supposed to be, or is it just the “new normal” that's part of a broken world? I suspect that it could all be the result of an ecosystem and infrastructure that’s not the way it originally was made to be.

What we do know for sure is that God made this world a good world. Because of human choice, it’s a good world gone bad. Why did God let it happen?

The Price of Freedom

Besides giving our first ancestors the gift of life, God gave them the gift of freedom. He made them free moral agents, able to decide things for themselves. He did that because He wanted a relationship with the special creatures that He made in His own image. Having a relationship requires that both parties involved voluntarily choose to have the relationship. Loving requires the freedom to not love. The freedom to be good and do good requires the freedom to be bad and do bad. Evil is good that has gone bad.

If God had made us so we could do nothing but what’s good and loving, it wouldn’t be goodness and love. We would have been created as robots or puppets. As many of you know, I have a little ventriloquist buddy named Ricky. We look like we have an interesting relationship: I’m patient and he has an attitude. Actually, we have no relationship! (Did you know that or did I just ruin your day?) I once wrote a fictional story about a lonely man named Malcolm who bought a vent figure and learned ventriloquism so that he would no longer be alone — but it didn’t work.

Because God could stop all the pain in the world but chooses not to do so — or could have not created the world at all, knowing how it would turn out — He must have reasons for letting it be a broken world. He must have His purposes in it all.

The Purpose of Pain

One of the first questions people ask when they’re confronted by pain and suffering isn't why it happens, but why it happens to good people. People who seek to center their lives around God still have troubles and tragedies in life — sometimes, it seems, more than their share. Wouldn't it be great if when you turned to God, life was sort of like playing a country and western song backwards: the wayward mate returns home, the dog comes back to life, and the old pick-up truck starts working again. Why doesn't it happen that way?

Well, think about it. If people who turn to God had no illnesses and accidents and always had perfect children, good jobs, new cars, and big houses, everyone would want to turn to God — but not for God's sake! They'd do it for their own sake, for their own self-betterment. It would be a form of coercion on God's part, to get people to turn to Him.

A study of the Bible and an honest reflection on past pain in our own lives also brings us to realize that amazingly, God uses the pain in this broken world to further His plans and purposes — and because His intentions for us are nothing but good, that means those things are for our ultimate good, as well! The apostle Paul's famous affirmation is good to keep in mind: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) If you and I truly desire to align our purposes with those of God, He’s fully capable of using anything and everything that happens to us for good.

It often happens that in the midst of the pain of whatever we're facing, God becomes more real to us and we become more dependent on Him, more like Him, and of greater use to Him. The apostle Paul asked God to heal him of something that he called a “thorn in my flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7) God said no, and Paul heard the Lord say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

God has His purposes for our pain — and as long as we know there’s a purpose, we can handle it. Prisoners of war who were ordered to carry heavy rocks from one end of the prison camp and back again for no reason were driven mad. They weren’t driven mad by the work, but by the absolute meaninglessness of the work. Because God is a good God with the best of intentions for us, we can know that He has a purpose for allowing the pain and suffering that we face!

A Loving God and Hell?

I’d like to make a short observation on why a good God would allow a place like hell to exist. First, let me give you the best reason to believe that hell does exist: Jesus said that it does! I believe that Jesus was, among other things, a good teacher, and one of the things He taught was the existence of hell.

The fact is that a loving God who wants people to spend eternity with Him has to also provide a place where people can be apart from Him. If God forced everyone to go to heaven, it wouldn’t be an act of love.

C. S. Lewis said about what we call God's divine judgment, “There will be two kinds of people in the end: Those that will say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God will say 'Thy will be done.'” God won’t force people to spend an eternity with Him. Those who have chosen not to organize their lives around Him will have their wishes granted forever. However, existence without God and without all the good gifts that He gives — and that only come from Him — is a hellish existence. A place away from God — hell — is the loving response of God to let people have their own way, to make their own free choice.

A Prophet's Affirmation

We’d do well to affirm what the prophet Habakkuk stated at the end of his book in the Bible. Habakkuk, a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, spoke on behalf of
God just before the Babylonians were to come and conquer Judah, destroying Jerusalem. In his short book Habakkuk complained to God about the injustice in Judah.
“Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:3) Then God answered: He would do something! He would judge Judah by allowing them to be conquered by Babylon. “Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. . . . I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, . . .” (Habakkuk 1:5-6) Now Habakkuk complained to God that the Babylonians were worse than Judah, yet God was going to use them to punish Judah? “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you so silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13) God's reply was that the Babylonians, too, would be punished. “Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you.” (Habakkuk 2:8)

Habakkuk, as a righteous man of God, had been grieved when his own people of Judah turned from God. Then he was grieved that an even worse people would take over their land — but eventually, he was told, someone else would come along and conquer the conquerors. There would be so much pain! But this was the conclusion of it all for Habakkuk: first he stated, “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity.” (Habakkuk 3:16) He was willing to accept what God would allow to happen. Then he gave this grand conclusion to his book — a conclusion we should reach, too. It's a marvelous statement of having profound trust and confidence in God through it all!

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19) I want to face my broken world with that kind of confidence and faith in God! You, too?

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