Chapter 2: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Natural disasters can create unfathomable suffering. Staring into the faceless brutality of such catastrophes can be deeply shocking and sobering to all of us.
But often, the tragedy of death and destruction is matched by another tragedy—and that is, how ministers respond.
Many times, prominent priests and theologians will say it is not God’s will that such things happen. Some of them even question the existence of God! That is a tragedy.
After the Asian tsunami in December 2004 that snuffed out more than 225,000 lives, a Sunday Telegraph headline read: “Archbishop of Canterbury Admits: This Makes Me Doubt the Existence of God” (Jan. 2, 2005). At the time, this man led 70 million Anglicans! And the tsunami diminished his faith.
The article paraphrased the archbishop, Dr. Rowan Williams, as saying, “The Asian tsunami disaster should make all Christians question the existence of God” (emphasis added throughout).
That is a terribly false statement! If you understand the truth, such disasters should increase your faith—not decrease it! In this booklet we want to show why such disasters should strengthen everyone’s belief in God, according to your Bible.
The article said, “Prayer, [the archbishop] admits, provides no ‘magical solutions’ and most of the stock Christian answers to human suffering do not ‘go very far in helping us … with the intolerable grief and devastation in front of us.’” If that’s the way our prayers are, something is wrong. And if these “stock answers,” as he called them, don’t really satisfy anybody, something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong with that religion!
We cannot be careless about something so critical. We are talking about the state of our eternal lives!
In his own article, the archbishop wrote, “Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. … The question: ‘How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?’ is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t—indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t” (Sunday Telegraph, Jan. 2, 2005). That is not the kind of statement that builds people’s faith.
“The traditional answers will get us only so far,” the archbishop continued. “If some religious genius did come up with an explanation of exactly why all these deaths made sense, would we feel happier or safer or more confident in God? Wouldn’t we feel something of a chill at the prospect of a God who deliberately plans a program that involves a certain level of casualties?”
That is a rather dangerous statement. He is scoffing at the idea that anyone could have an explanation. But Jesus Christ has an explanation! It’s there in the Bible. Christ is a “religious genius,” and He has the answers. Is the archbishop familiar with Matthew 24?
This man is destroying people’s faith—exactly the opposite of what a spiritual shepherd is supposed to do for his flock.
This is how theologian David Hart responded to the same disaster in the Wall Street Journal: “When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering—when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s—no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms—knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against ‘fate,’ and that must do so until the end of days” (Dec. 31, 2004). His view is eloquently stated. But it is laced with desperation and hopelessness—and it disagrees with the Bible!
Paul Stenhouse, a Catholic priest, responded to the same event this way: “Christianity does not teach that God causes natural disasters; nor does it teach that God causes them in order to punish the wickedness of the victims” (Jan. 3, 2005). This view is unsatisfying because it leaves unanswered an obvious question: Why would God allow disasters? Certainly an all-powerful God could stop them before they happened. Why doesn’t He? Could He possibly be that callous to such an incalculable level of human suffering? The natural mind struggles to understand.
Yet the religious elite of the world offer no real explanation—and no hope! Are these religious leaders willing to look in the Bible and simply believe God?
The regrettable reality is, most people do not know, much less accept the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Bible! They are worshiping a god of their own creation.
God’s Word does explain—in explicit detail—why such events happen. Their causes are spelled out from the first book of the Bible to the last.
How is it that so many people claim to believe in God, yet vehemently dismiss any notion that God has any connection to nature-related disasters?
If you believe in God, what sort of God is He? Are natural disasters beyond His control? Is He unable to prevent them? Or, on the other hand, does He delight in watching people suffer?
Philosophizing and concocting our own ideas to answer these questions will never satisfy. Instead, we must let God speak for Himself—and look to the plain revelation that God provides in His inspired Word!
There is meaning. There is a lesson, a profound lesson, wrapped within the loss of life and breadth of desolation of such events—one that each of us must consider deeply. The truth—contained within the occasional deadly events unleashed by the natural world—is filled with living hope!
Whose World Is This?
Contrast the reality of disasters and personal suffering you see all around the globe with this prophecy coinciding with the return of Jesus Christ: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). Has that prophecy been fulfilled? The world around us is filled with sorrow and sighing! Clearly, Jesus Christ has not returned, causing such things to flee away. This is only one of many such biblical prophecies describing utopian conditions to prevail on this Earth once Christ comes to establish His rule as “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” This world is a far cry from experiencing widespread “joy and gladness” under God’s benevolent government.
Rather, we see what the Apostle Paul described in Galatians 1:4, when he referred to the age in which we live as “this present evil world.”
This “present evil world” is not God’s world! So then—whose world is it?
Ezekiel 28 describes a magnificent archangel, “full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty” (verse 12). Isaiah 14:13 tells us this being called Lucifer tried to exalt his own throne—a position of authority over the Earth—above God’s throne. God cast Lucifer, now called Satan (meaning “adversary”), back down to Earth. Elsewhere, Paul referred to Satan the devil as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). In Revelation 12:9, the Apostle John says that Satan “deceiveth the whole world.”
Think about that! The Bible reveals that, at present, this world is ruled not by God, but by a malevolent spirit being who is the source of all evil!
It also reveals how the devil gained control of mankind—and why God allows that to this day. This truth has everything to do with God’s purpose for you—your incredible human potential.
This takes us right back to the first book in the Bible.
The Two Trees
Most people are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve but have never understood its true significance. It is not about two fruit trees—it is about two ways of life. And what happened in the Garden of Eden has shaped every aspect of man’s civilization!
Consider the opportunity the first two human beings had. At the beginning of human existence, God created Adam and Eve at the very pinnacle of the material world. He cast them in His very likeness: Unlike the animals, human beings look like their Maker. God intended that they care for and rule benevolently over the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26-31). He endowed them with intellectual and creative powers, enabling them to grow into God’s own image, or character. Earth was the training ground so that these two, and the family of man that would spring from them, could eventually fulfill their fullest potential as eternal children of God.
True character must be developed through right decisions, so God made Adam and Eve free moral agents. He then gave them a choice. They could have followed God’s instructions by choosing the tree of life, which represents God’s Holy Spirit and the path to eternal life. Romans 8:10 even refers to God’s Spirit as life. This spirit-life comes only as a gift from God (Romans 6:23). Had Adam and Eve made that choice, they would have continued to live under God’s protection; they would have developed a relationship with God, learning to think like Him and to live His way of give.
God would have removed Satan from his position of power on the Earth and given that authority to Adam. God wanted to fulfill His purpose in Adam and Eve.
Instead, the first two people trusted in themselves, succumbed to the temptations of Satan the devil, and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which represented Satan’s way of life. That rebellion, that sin against God, is the origin of all human suffering.
To comprehend the disasters we see ravaging our world today, we must grasp the implications of this fateful moment in human history.
A World Cut Off
Genesis 3:16-19 show that because of Adam and Eve’s decision, God removed His protection and guidance, and pronounced upon them certain curses; then He banished them from the garden and cut off their access to the tree of life (verses 22-24).
This was not a quick-tempered outburst: God, to preserve the exalted potential of man, had to seal off the tree of life. To bring the first two humans into His eternal Family while they were making choices contrary to His commandments—opposing His love—would have produced eternal division and misery. So instead, God took the occasion to teach Adam and Eve, and all those who would follow them, an enormous lesson.
In his final book, Mystery of the Ages, Herbert W. Armstrong explained what God, in essence, told Adam: “You have made the decision for yourself and the world that shall spring from you. You have rejected me as the basic source of knowledge—you have rejected power from me through my Spirit to live the righteous way—you have rebelled against my command and my government—you have chosen the ‘getting,’ ‘taking’ way of Satan. Therefore I sentence you and the world you shall beget to 6,000 years of being cut off from access to me and my Spirit—except for the exceedingly few I shall specially call. And that few shall be called for special service preparatory for the Kingdom of God. They shall be required to do what you have failed to do—reject, resist and overcome Satan and his ways, and follow the ways of my spiritual law.
“Go, therefore, Adam, and all your progeny that shall form the world, produce your own fund of knowledge. Decide for yourself what is good and what is evil. Produce your own educational systems and means of disseminating knowledge, as your god Satan shall mislead you. Form your own concepts of what is god, your own religions, your own governments, your own lifestyles and forms of society and civilization. In all this Satan will deceive your world with his attitude of self-centeredness—with vanity, lust and greed, jealousy and envy, competition and strife and violence and wars, rebellion against me and my law of love.
“After the world of your descendants has written the lesson in 6,000 years of human suffering, anguish, frustration, defeat and death—after the world that shall spring from you shall have been brought to confess the utter hopelessness of the way of life you have chosen—I will supernaturally intervene. … During this 6,000 years, when I myself shall cut them off from me, they shall not be eternally judged. Only, as they sow during their lifetimes, they shall reap.” (We will send you a copy of Mystery of the Ages so you can study God’s plan of salvation in much greater detail; the book is free upon your request.)
Realize this: Every aspect of our society has been affected because Adam and Eve defied their Creator! This fatal choice at the beginning of human history made necessary the writing of that lesson in human suffering: the 6,000-year period of which mankind is now nearing the end. This great epoch during which man has been essentially cut off from direct contact with God is almost over. Soon God will remove Satan from the scene and open the human mind to receive the wonderful truth about mankind’s incredible potential. But not before man learns some powerful lessons.
Mr. Armstrong referred to this difficult 6,000-year “lesson” man is recording by his own experience as aversion therapy. Some clinics still employ this method to help people overcome addictions. If a person is an alcoholic, for instance, he would be forced to drink alcohol until it made him so sick that he would never want another drink!
In a sense, that is what God is doing with this world. Though He is not forcing us to go the way of Satan, He is certainly permitting us to fill our minds with Satan’s way of life. God is allowing this to bring us to the point where we will absolutely loathe and abhor this “present evil world.” He is allowing man to go his own way so we might see the fruits of living contrary to God’s law of love.
In 1982, Mr. Armstrong gave a sermon titled “Aversion Therapy,” referring to this period where God has largely kept His hands off the affairs of this world. He said, “I am getting so sick of sin that I want to be at the place where I can’t sin anymore. I hope you do, too.” This is the state God wants the entire world to reach—a state where we are ready to live His way of life!
Right now, all of mankind remains under the malicious influence of the devil. People continue to choose the wrong tree and reap the same results with every new generation. Swayed by Satan, without God in our life, each of us is hostile toward God, even if only passively and unwittingly (Romans 8:7-8). We are carnal. Naturally, we hate God’s law.
In order to restore to us the exalted human potential that our first parents turned their backs on, God seeks to convert the heart of every carnal person in the world—to help us recognize our error in going the wrong way, and to instill in us a deep love for God’s way of life. As the Apostle Peter explained, “The Lord is … not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). That is a tremendous ambition, given the mountainous obstacle that each heart presents. God is not doing this on a mass scale today, but His overarching plan, once fulfilled, does include everyone willing to come to repentance.
True repentance bridges the gap between an individual and God. Thus, the very first step toward real and everlasting happiness is a genuine, deep, complete repentance.
To recognize our own helplessness, unhappiness and inadequacy apart from God is the most fundamental lesson any of us can learn.
Whenever God begins working with someone, He begins by humbling that individual. As it says in Proverbs 15:33, “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility.” God wants to give each of us phenomenal honor—but the humility, rooted in a deep respect for the Creator, must come first.
The curses God imposed upon Adam and his seed were intended to teach this lesson. The suffering that saturates this present world, cut off from God, is intended to teach this lesson.
This returns us to the matter of nature-related disasters.
The Weather Is No Accident!
The Bible reveals that God has set spiritual and physical laws in motion, and that He is presently allowing humans to develop their own ways of living—contrary to His laws—and to reap the natural consequences that result from those ways, including weather upsets. To be sure, some of the suffering we experience today is our simply reaping the results of our own mistakes, mismanagement and sin.
God has given to us liberally manifold physical blessings. Yet we have raped our environment through godless monoculture on a massive scale, poisoned our food and water with body- and mind-destroying chemicals, polluted our air, and created a huge high-cost medical-pharmaceutical-hospital industry to busily try to treat the massive life-destroying sicknesses and diseases of mind and body that our corrupt culture has generated!
The Bible also shows that God, in His great purpose, permits Satan the devil—the current (and temporary) unseen ruler of this world—to interfere with weather patterns and to have a role in producing catastrophic weather, for man’s ultimate learning (see, for example, Job 1).
But there is an even more important dimension revealed in Scripture that we must recognize: Even during this 6,000 years of mankind, in general, being cut off from its Creator, God is still actively involved in events in order to ensure that they unfold according to His ultimate purposes!
The God of the Bible claims that He controls the weather and natural phenomena! He says He causes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. He sends the snow and ice as well as drought and heat.
The author of Psalm 148 understood God’s power over the elements. He wrote in verse 8 about “[f]ire, and hail; snow, and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling his word.”
Considering how dependent we are on favorable natural conditions, this is certainly a way that the Power who can create such conditions can demonstrate His benevolence and favor to us. In fact, Scripture is full of promises from God to bless people with good climatic conditions. Open the book and read them for yourself! In Leviticus 26:4-5, for example, He promises a mild climate, seasonal rain and bumper crops. In Deuteronomy 28:11-12 He makes similar promises.
Incidentally, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are the two pivotal chapters on which all Old Testament prophecies turn. Anciently, God made these conditional promises to the people of Israel. When the Israelites turned from God in rebellion, God sent prophets to warn them of the consequences for disobedience: curses and captivity. This is the context we need to understand in order to grasp what is recorded in the writings of the major and minor prophets.
Many of these ancient prophetic warnings were written and recorded after the Israelites had already been taken captive as slaves. Daniel, for instance, wrote his book after the people of both Israel and Judah had been uprooted from their homeland and carted off as slaves. There is no way he could have delivered his message to captive slaves. Besides that, he wrote at the end of his book that he himself did not understand the prophecies he received, and that the message was “closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9).
God told the Prophet Ezekiel to deliver his message to the house of Israel. Yet Ezekiel wrote his book a full 130 years after Israel had been overrun by Gentiles! By Ezekiel’s time, Israel had been lost from world view!
So who are these messages for primarily since they are not for ancient Israel?
We know they are for the end time. We also know they are addressed to a people called Israel. And so all that remains to be discovered, then, is the identity of ancient Israel’s modern descendants. If you haven’t yet proved who those descendants are, please request our free book—requested by more than 5 million people—The United States and Britain in Prophecy. These modern descendants of Israel reside primarily in America, Britain and the little Jewish nation called Israel today.
This means the message in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 is directed primarily to our peoples.
Look at those promises again! Rain in due season, favorable weather for abundant crops and so on. Looking at our simultaneously parched and flooded lands, seeing our battered farms and wasted crops, shouldn’t we be asking, Where is this God?
God has as much control over natural phenomena today as He did then. In His omnipotence He can stop the elemental forces that so often wreak havoc in our modern world; after all, Jesus Christ stilled a storm with just a few words (Mark 4:39).
But notice again the context of those promises. They come with a condition: “IF ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and DO them” (Leviticus 26:3).
This begins to reveal the crucial dimension in this issue that so many people want to ignore.