Pastors and the Problem of Evil

by Gary Shultz February 10, 2017

Six weeks after I began pastoring my church I found myself hugging one of the ladies in our congregation, tears streaming down her face and threatening to cover mine. Food and friends were everywhere, as people had gathered to comfort her the best that they could. Her husband had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. As I struggled to find any words that could possibly minister God’s grace to her, she asked me the question I was afraid she would ask. “Pastor, why? Why would God take him?”

Pastors spend a lot of time at the intersection of grace and evil and serve as witnesses to God’s grace when someone suffers from the evil that sin brings into our lives. As we minister to people who experience grief, loss, pain, and despair, we will hear the “why” question over and over. “Why would God let this happen?” “Why is this happening now?” “Why doesn’t God do something about this?”

The “why” question is really a question about the problem of evil. If God is good, and God is all-powerful, then why do things like this happen? Believers have long wrestled with this question. The psalms lead us, again and again, to ask God, “How long?” Habakkuk begins his book with this question. He asks God why he tolerates such wrong and makes him witness such injustice (Hab 1:3). We know that even Jesus struggled with this question on the cross as he cried out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matt 27:46)?”

Pastors who love their congregations want to help them see and experience God in the midst of their suffering, so we’re often tempted to answer the “why” question with some kind of explanation. Depending on our theological bend, we might make an appeal to God’s sovereignty and providence. We may remind people that God has a plan, that his plan encompasses even the worst kinds of evil, and that his plan is always good even when we don’t understand it. Or we might launch into a defense of human freedom and remind people that God’s love and respect for us as created beings is so great that he wants us to freely choose him, which means that when we don’t choose him, the evil that results is a regrettable reality that God works to overcome.

We don’t want people to doubt, we don’t want people to hurt, so we do our best to give some kind of biblical answer.

We must resist the temptation to explain the unexplainable. We can’t forget that Scripture never offers us a rational explanation of evil. We need biblical understandings of God’s sovereignty, human freedom, and original sin. However, they are not adequate answers to the “why” question. The book of Job helps us resist the temptation to offer our theological explanations as solutions to the problem of evil. We see the wisdom of Job’s friends put in its place when God appears on the scene. God offers no explanation, he reminds Job of who he is and what he has done and calls Job to trust him.

So what should we say when someone asks us the “why” question? When that lady asked me why God would take her husband, my prepared explanation of God’s providence and the awful consequences of sin seemed to be wholly inadequate in the moment. Instead, I mumbled a few words about how we don’t really know the answer to that question, but we can trust there is an explanation because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I quickly moved to pray for hope and comfort for her based on those truths. That night I felt embarrassed and inadequate and I asked God for forgiveness for the way I botched such a basic pastoral responsibility. I felt like I had failed since I didn’t provide a decent answer to such an important question.

It took me a while to see how God worked in that situation and kept me from saying the wrong thing. Our best answer to the “why” question is not to try and explain evil, but to remind people what God has done about evil. Jesus Christ died to defeat sin and evil, the resurrection brings victory over sin and evil, and the reality of cross and the empty tomb grounds our expectation of his return when all things will be set right. At the cross, we see the goodness of God, the power of God, the full reality of evil, and the reality of evil’s defeat. We need the same thing Job needed: to remember who God is and what he has done so we will trust him. Our people need the hope of the cross and the assurance of the resurrection. As pastors, we must remain witnesses. We must help people place their faith in the gospel again and again. We can’t always explain why evil things happen, but we can point people to God and what he has done about evil through his Son. This is the answer that God’s people need to hear. 

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