Is Christ the only way? Don't all religions lead to God? Are Christians really so narrow-minded and intolerant?
If you're Christian, you've probably encountered these or similar questions. If you're not a Christian, you may have asked some of these questions yourself. They are reasonable questions that deserve reasonable answers. This article will answer them by looking at the concepts of truth and tolerance, briefly exploring differences between competing religions and philosophies and looking at what the Bible has to say.
If truth is relative, then no religion or idea can claim exclusivity because something could be true for one person, but not for another. We can see this when it comes to matters of taste, such as whether or not one person happens to like hot chocolate or not, but what about when it comes to ideas? Are ideas relative? If I say, "I really like hot chocolate," I'm making a claim about a matter of taste. Someone else might not like hot chocolate. But what if I say, "Jesus is Lord"? Someone else may disagree, and they are welcome to, but the claim, "Jesus is Lord" is a truth claim. I'm staking out an area of reality, so to speak, and saying that this bit of information is true.
But what do I mean by "true"? In short, truth is what corresponds to reality. If Jesus is Lord, then he is so no matter how I respond to the claim. In addition, I should be tolerant of those who hold to differing beliefs on this point and they should be tolerant of my belief. But tolerance does not mean that everyone is right. Tolerating different points of view does not mean that we give up our own truth claims.
When it comes to religion and philosophy, however, some people do not believe that any one belief is true. They might point out disagreements between adherents of Christianity or other religions and philosophies as an example of the futility of trying to say that any one belief system is true.
Or sometimes analogies are provided, with one of the most popular being that of the blind men and the elephant. Although there are variations of the story, the point of all of them is that some blind men examined different parts of an elephant and all concluded it was something different. One man touched the tail and described the elephant as rope. Another man felt the tusk and described the elephant as hard. Yet a third blind man felt the elephant's ear and said it must be a soft creature. "You see," says the person offering the example, "they all grasped parts of the same truth. Similarly, all religions are true in their own way."
But does this illustration hold up? Is it really the same as our hot chocolate example – a matter of taste? On closer examination we learn at least two key things about the example. First, there was a real elephant or truth to be grasped, yet all the men got it wrong! Second, knowing just a part of something is not the same as knowing the bigger picture. There really was a truth to be grasped – a real, live elephant – but all the men missed out on this fact.
Now let's take a look at a few religions and philosophies in light of the elephant illustration. Christian theism claims that there is only one God, personal and distinctly separate from His creation. Pantheism, found in forms of Hinduism for instance, claims that everything is part of the impersonal divine. Atheists claim there is no god. Are these three worldviews really describing different parts of the same thing? Since they flat out contradict one another, the claim that they are all describing different aspects of the same thing does not make much sense. After all, God cannot both exist and not-exist at the same time and in the same way. Neither can God be personal and impersonal, everything and separate from creation at the same time and in the same way.
If we look at the situation rationally, then either all religions and philosophies are wrong or one of them is true. This is not to say that there are no commonalities between religions and philosophies. But what they have to say on the big issues such as the nature of God, the human condition, and the way of salvation or spiritual liberation, is very different.
Christianity happens to claim that on these key theological points, it is true. But Christianity is not the only religion or philosophy to make truth claims. Atheists, for instance, would claim that their denial of the existence of God is true (corresponds to reality). As a result, anyone who disagrees with their position is wrong. Consistent pantheists would have to deny that God has personality, instead clinging to the divine as being an impersonal force. By definition, pantheists, then, are staking out a portion of reality and essentially are saying that Christians and atheists are both wrong.
What if we apply the same sort of reasoning of those who offer the elephant example to mathematics? One person says two plus two is four, but another says the answer is five, while yet a third person says the answer is really seven. After all, isn't it narrow-minded and intolerant to demand that only one answer to the problem be the right one?
Now let's turn our attention to the truth claims of Christianity. In the Bible, Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [God] except through me" (John 14:6, NIV). In Acts 4:12, the Apostle Peter said of Jesus, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
The question is not whether or not this is a "narrow-minded" position, but whether or not the claims are true. Jesus spoke of a personal creator God who calls everyone to repentance, offering redemption to those who will receive Him. This is not an intolerant or mean-spirited position to hold. If it's true, then sharing this message is the most natural and loving thing to do.
The claims of Christ have their foundation in his identity and claims. His followers were aware of this, as the apostle Paul wrote, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith ... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17). Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh, who came to earth to suffer and die for the our sins, to be raised again from the dead after his crucifixion. Again, we are dealing with specific truth claims about reality. If these claims are true, as Christians believe, then how we respond to them is not just an intellectual game, but is of significant and eternal importance.
Romans 10:17 reads, "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (NIV). But what about those who have never heard? This is probably one of the most common questions or objections to Christianity. It's also sometimes phrased as, "What about the heathen?" In other words, is it fair for God to condemn people who never had an opportunity to hear the message of Christ?
There are many ways to approach this question. This article will focus on the motivations of the person asking the question, reasonable answers to it, and a look at what the Bible has to say on the matter.
Often the question is asked as a diversion. It immediately takes away the focus on the person asking the question and shifts a problem back to the Christian. This is not to say it's not a legitimate question (it is), but the motivation is not always a sincere desire to get an answer. Of course, ignoring the question is not helpful, either, as this gives the impression that the Christian doesn't care or doesn't have a good answer.
Sometimes it's a legitimate question driven by real concern over the nature of God. If He's really all loving, then the fact that He appears to condemn those who have never heard the gospel comes across as harsh, unmerciful and unjust. The important thing to remember is that after answering the question make sure to bring the discussion back to a personal response to Christ.
A point related to the motivation for the question has to do with truth. Does the question, however it is answered, change whether or not Christianity is true? It doesn't. If God exists and has revealed Himself to us, and if Christ is the only way to God, then the question may puzzle us, but it won't change the truth of the Christian message.
The answer to the question relates to God's nature, His revelation and our response. Biblically speaking, God is holy, just, unchanging and all-loving. This means that God will always do what is right.
When it comes to God's revelation, theologians divide these into God's special and general revelation. His special revelation includes the Bible and Christ. These are both direct and special means of God revealing Himself to us. General revelation, sometimes called natural revelation, consists of what God has revealed of Himself via the natural world and moral conscience.
Two passages in Romans further explain general revelation: "For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1:20) and "the requirements of the law are written on their hearts" (Romans 2:15). Taken together these passages claim that everyone has an inherent knowledge of God, that this can be clearly known from creation and that everyone also has a God-given moral compass.
Is it true, then, that "those who have never heard," really have no idea of God's existence or of their moral responsibilities? Biblically speaking, it's not true. "Those who have never heard" have heard something and they do have access to key information about God. They know that God exists, that there is a moral standard and that they have broken this standard.
Second Peter 3:9 reads, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." God desires that everyone come to Him via Christ, but not all will. We, however, do not have access to a list of who will respond to God and who will not. As such, biblical Christianity places a great deal of emphasis on missionary efforts.
Romans 10:13-15 underscores the significance of Christian evangelism when it comes to reaching those who have never heard: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
In other words, Christians are actively spreading the message of Jesus so that "those who have never heard" will indeed get an opportunity to hear. Various missionary stories support the fact that often times those who have never heard who have responded to God's general revelation are later visited by Christian missionaries.
The Bible, for instance, records just such a story about a man named Cornelius. This man knew about God, but not about Christ. Because of his sincere desire to know God, Cornelius came in direct contact with the Apostle Peter who told Cornelius about Jesus (see Acts 10 for the entire story).
In their book Faith Comes by Hearing, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson write, "How could it be fair and just for those who have never even had a chance to hear the gospel, which is necessary for salvation, to be condemned to hell? The question sounds powerful, but behind it lie faulty assumptions." 1
What are these "faulty assumptions"? "The first mistaken assumption," continue Morgan and Peterson, "is that our condemnation is based on a rejection of the gospel. Scripture teaches that our condemnation is based on the fact that we are sinners, not because at some point in time we rejected the gospel … Furthermore, God's wrath is revealed against everyone who suppresses his truth revealed through creation … Strictly speaking, the Bible denies that there are persons who have never heard of God." 2
Morgan and Peterson go on to explain another faulty assumption, this one having to do with "a confusion of justice and mercy." 3 God is merciful in that He has provided a way of salvation via Christ for those who will accept Him. But God is also just in that unrepentance will not go unnoticed.
We know that God will deal fairly with those who have not received a direct presentation of the gospel, just as He will deal fairly with those who have. But is God's way too narrow? Far from it. God's way is wide enough for everyone willing to accept it and receive Christ. The most important question any of us can answer is the one Jesus asked his own disciples, "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20).
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
–Matthew 7:3-5 (NIV)
With these witty but also biting words, Jesus causes his listeners – then and today – to carefully examine their own lives. Are we going about accusing others of minor shortcomings when, in fact, we ourselves are ignoring our own behavior? If so, we are hypocrites. Once our hypocrisy is removed, then we are in a position to help others.
Unfortunately, one obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity that is often raised is provided by Christians themselves. Phrased in many ways, the core of the objection is, "If Christianity is true, why are there hypocrites in the church?" In other words, if Christianity is really supposed to change people, then why do some who profess to believe in Jesus set such bad examples? This article will answer the "hypocrisy objection" to Christianity. But first, let's explore the definition of hypocrisy in general, as well as in a biblical sense.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hypocrisy as follows: "The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretense, sham. Also, an instance of this." It defines hypocrite in this manner: "One who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his real ones; hence generally, a dissembler, pretender." 1
In simpler terms, a hypocrite is someone who not only does not practice what one preaches, but a person who does the opposite of what one preaches. A parent holding a beer and smoking a cigarette who admonishes a child not to drink or smoke, for instance, may be viewed as being a hypocrite by the child.
Similarly, critics of Christianity who raise the hypocrisy objection usually point to some moral failure in the lives of Christians they know as examples of Christianity being false or at least highly suspect. "See!" they exclaim. "There goes another hypocrite in the church! How can I believe Christianity if the church is full of hypocrites?"
Before directly answering the question, we'll take a brief look at biblical examples of hypocrisy.
"Hypocrisy" or variations of it appear 17 times in the NIV translation of the Bible. Often it is Christ calling people hypocrites (see, for instance, Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 15; 23:23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51; Mark 7:6; Luke 6:42; 12:56; and 13:15). "You hypocrites!" in fact is a recurring phrase.
Was Jesus guilty of pointing out the speck in someone else's eye when in fact he had a plank in his own? Not at all. As Josh McDowell and Don Stewart write:
"Christianity does not stand or fall on the way Christians have acted throughout history or are acting today. Christianity stands or falls on the person of Jesus, and Jesus was not a hypocrite. He lived consistently with what He taught, and at the end of His life He challenged those who had lived with Him night and day, for over three years, to point out any hypocrisy in Him. His disciples were silent, because there was none. Since Christianity depends on Jesus, it is incorrect to try to invalidate the Christian faith by pointing to horrible things done in the name of Christianity." 2
McDowell and Stewart bring up three important points. First, whether or not Christianity is true does not depend on how its adherents behave. This, of course, does not excuse hypocrisy in the church, but neither does it mean that hypocrisy is sufficient reason to dismiss Christianity. Second, Christ was not a hypocrite in any sense of the word. Often even critics agree with this point, exalting the high moral standards of Christ without understanding His larger claims. Third, seemingly hypocritical behavior on a large scale, such as the Inquisition, does not invalidate Christianity, either. Again, this does not excuse hypocritical behavior, but separates it from the center of Christianity: Christ and His claims.
Are all Christians hypocrites? Not at all! In fact, the history of the Christian church is filled with examples of selflessness, courage, moral action and reform and many other positive influences on the world. These are not the acts of hypocrites, but of sincere believers transformed by the resurrected Christ and moved by the Holy Spirit to "do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). 3
The church is a work in progress (and so are its members). Like a cathedral that may take decades or centuries to complete, the process is long and arduous, but someday it will be complete and stand as a beautiful testimony to the power of Christ to transform lives for the better. Remember, too, that only some professing Christians act hypocritically. What about all those who do not? What about all those who consistently live out the love of Christ in the world?
Until the church and all followers of Christ are glorified, there will, unfortunately, be hypocrites in the church. What's important to remember, however, is that this does not negate Christianity or the claims of Christ. In addition, accusations of hypocrisy assume that there is a moral standard that hypocrites break. But where does this standard come from? In this sense, the hypocrisy objection actually supports the reality of a transcendent, moral lawgiver (that is, God), rather that argue against Him.
We must also remember that, biblically speaking, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24). In other words, no one is perfect and all are dependent on Christ for redemption, salvation and growth in spiritual maturity. On the one hand, Christians should not act hypocritically, lest we provide critics with a flimsy reason to reject the gospel message. On the other hand, critics should know better than to attempt to throw out Christianity and all of Christ's claims on the basis of the hypocrisy objection.
Is hell real? Do Christians really believe in it? Why would a loving God send people to hell forever? These and other questions about the doctrine of hell may not be pleasant to address, but they often come up as objections to Christianity, even puzzling Christians at times.
This article will address some key questions related to hell, explore and evaluate some objections to it, look at what the Bible has to say about hell, and touch on how the doctrine relates to the nature of God as well as human nature.
Before delving into the topic, it will help to understand what is meant by the term. Theologically speaking, the doctrine of hell relates to personal eschatology. While eschatology is popularly known in relation to end-times events and various interpretations of the book of Revelation, it also encompasses what may be termed the "final state" of individual souls. In other words, is our ultimate and eternal destiny heaven or hell? Despite God's offer of redemption and salvation through Christ, not everyone will be redeemed, resulting in those who reject God being destined for hell.
While some people may grant that hell is required for extremely evil individuals, expecting some sense of justice, there is often tension about seemingly "good" people going to hell (addressed in the next article). There's certainly an emotional component to the objections, too.
For instance, doesn't eternal hell seem like cosmic overkill? Couldn't God reform bad people or just annihilate them? After all, why punish people forever for one limited lifetime of behavior? And wouldn't annihilation be preferable to eternal suffering? These objections may seem reasonable at first glance, but as we will see, they ignore or fail to understand key aspects of God's nature as well as human nature.
In short, God has made efforts to reform people. Each of us is given a lifetime to reform and embrace God through Christ. Unfortunately, some reject God and His truths, choosing their own path rather than God's. As for eternal suffering being overkill in reference to limited or temporal behavior, this fails to understand the nature of sin and its relation to a holy God.
When it comes to suggesting annihilation as opposed to eternal suffering in hell, again this seems like a plausible objection. It fails, however, to understand that God is a God of life. Human beings are made in His image (Genesis 1:26, 27). Therefore, every person is of inestimable value. First, annihilationism does not fit the biblical evidence. Second, as has been noted, it fails to understand the worth God places on human life. Third, God respects human choice.
But couldn't God have created a world without hell? Any answer to this question is somewhat hypothetical. However, given that God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, it is certainly possible that He could have created such a world. But would such a world be the best possible world? To create a world without hell would require impinging on human freedom, essentially creating a world of robots or a world where our choices would be forcibly altered in order to avoid sin as an actual (such as in deed) or a potential (as in thought).
Hell is not an easy belief to accept. Even a seasoned Christian like C.S. Lewis said of it, "There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord's own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason." 1 According to Lewis, then, hell is a biblically supported doctrine, has been accepted by the Christian church throughout the centuries, and in his assessment is also reasonable.
What surprises some who object to the doctrine of hell is the fact that Jesus had a lot to say in support of the belief. In fact, scholars have determined that he said more about hell than about heaven. Many other verses could be cited,2 but this excerpt from Matthew 25:31-43 (NIV) offers a representative example of Christ speaking about eternal hell:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left … Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
Christ, then, had much to say about hell. Rather than being cruel, however, His intention then and now is to offer a way out of such a horrible destiny. But people must be willing to embrace this opportunity.
Another aspect of the doctrine of hell that is key to understanding it has to do with the nature of God. He is all-loving, but also completely sinless, holy and just. This means that anything unholy cannot enter His direct presence. As a result, those who fail to accept His truths must reside somewhere else (i.e., hell). God is also loving, but this characteristic means that He does not force belief upon anyone, but instead seeks to persuade us.
Biblically speaking, human nature is no longer what it once was when God created everything, including human beings and deemed it "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Now fallen, we are far short of our former glory. Our tendency now is to break God's moral standards or, in short, to sin (see, for instance, Romans 3:23). Is hell real? Yes, but fortunately God has provided the way of salvation for us through Christ. In the end, however, it is up to us to follow or reject His offer.
While hell is not a pleasant topic to address, it is important to understand it in biblical context.3 The alternative to hell, however, gives us cause to rejoice. In the next article in this series we'll address the question, "Don't all good people go to heaven?"
In John 6:38, Jesus said, "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me" (NIV). Six times in John 6 it is stressed that Jesus came down from heaven, underscoring not only his divine origin, but also that his purpose is to do God's will. The Greek word translated as "heaven" is ouranos and in context refers to the dwelling place of God. In Christian theology it is also where the redeemed will dwell.
There is a common perception that so long as one leads a generally good life, they will get into heaven. But the question, "Don't all good people go to heaven?" presupposes a number of points. First, there is usually the assumption that God exists and that He is all loving. Second, there is an assumption that although some "bad" people may need punishment, most people are generally "good" and, as such, are entitled to heaven. Third, there is the view that entrance into heaven is on the basis of merit (our works) rather than God's grace. Fourth, related to the question about heaven is the implicit suggestion that hell, if it exists at all, is really only for a marginal few who are responsible for particularly evil acts. Let's briefly look at these points.
That God exists is an obvious component of the Christian worldview. He not only exists, but is also creator, designer and sustainer of the universe and everything in it. Not only is He ever present, all knowing, and all powerful, God is also all loving. He is a personal being active in His creation, but distinct from it. Those who argue that all good people go to heaven then make the case that a loving God would not turn away good and sincere individuals. Instead, they reason, it's obvious that He would allow them into heaven.
This position, however, fails to consider the broad spectrum of the nature of God. While we may glean general principles about Him from what He has made (Romans 1:20) such as His existence, power and moral nature, we learn specifics about Him from the Bible—His special revelation. It is here that we learn that God is indeed merciful (Deuteronomy 4:31; Daniel 9:9), but also just (Job 34:12; Psalm 45:6; Isaiah 30:18). He is also completely holy. These aspects of His nature, particularly his justice and holiness, mean that anything even remotely sinful cannot dwell in God's presence.
The next assumption is that although some "bad" people may need punishment, most are generally "good" and entitled to heaven. The position that views people as generally good and entitled to heaven tends to make the error of viewing human nature as basically good. Biblical evidence as well as experiential evidence show this view to be false. As the Bible explains, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). Psalm 51:5 comes across even stronger: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."
Biblically speaking, most people are not "good." In fact, when compared to God's standards of holiness, no one is "good." To one degree or another, we all "fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This does not mean that we are always actively engaged in doing evil or participating in depraved acts all the time. But it does mean that in our very nature we are "fallen," in rebellion against God and incapable of saving ourselves.
The view that entrance into heaven is on the basis of merit (our works) rather than God's grace is also common. But a works based system of salvation is foreign to the message of Christ. Whether or not one enters heaven is not dependent on a continuum of good and evil, wherein we hope our good acts outweigh our bad ones. While this perspective may be common, it is biblically incorrect. As Ephesians 2:8-9 reads, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast" (NIV). Grace is God's unmerited favor, demonstrated most fully in the sacrifice of Christ. In short, the only way to heaven is through Jesus, "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6).
Those who argue that all good people go to heaven often suggest that if hell exists, it is reserved for a minority of particularly evil people. But since most people are not so evil, they argue, it makes sense to claim that all good people will get to heaven regardless of any minor lapses in moral behavior. Does this reasoning hold up? It does so only if it fails to take into account the nature of God, the nature of sin, and what the Bible has to say on the subject. As we've noted, God is holy, but He is also just. God's justice requires the reality of hell for the unredeemed. The nature of sin extends, biblically speaking, to everyone. Salvation is not by works, but by God's grace through Christ.
What about sincere and good people who are not Christian? 1 Won't God welcome them into heaven? This assumes that sincerity is enough to correspond to truth, when in reality it is not. As Proverbs 16:25 reads, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Sincerity will only get someone so far, then it must face reality. No matter how sincere someone may be about being able to fly by frantically flapping their arms, their sincerity will not keep them in the air. Besides, if someone is actively believing something that is not true and, as a result, is implicitly if not explicitly rejecting God, it seems odd for God to welcome such a person into heaven. Sincerity, then, is not enough. One also has to believe what is true.
Like the man who approached Jesus and used the word "good," perhaps without giving it much thought, we too need to be careful how we use and define our terms. As Jesus answered, "No one is good – except God alone" (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Do all "good" people go to heaven? Since no one is good as defined by God, the answer is, "No." Those who enter heaven do so not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of God's grace as bestowed by Jesus Christ. We can't work our way to heaven or claim to be without sin (1 John 1:8). Instead, we must humbly submit to God, turn from our wrong behavior, and turn to Christ for salvation.
Probably one of the greatest challenges faced by Christianity and Christians is the reality of evil and suffering. At times even great thinkers are baffled by the seeming contradiction between the existence of a loving God and the fact of evil.
Upon the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, "Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms … But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside." 1
Fortunately, Lewis came to grips with his grief and in the end realized that God not only exists, but that He is indeed all loving despite our sufferings.
Still, for Christians and non-Christians evil and suffering are often at the forefront of our minds, particularly when we ourselves are suffering. How could a good God allow so much evil? Why doesn't He do something about it? Couldn't God have created a world without evil?
These are important questions and while we cannot solve them all neatly in one short article, we can address evil and suffering and begin to offer some possible solutions to the seeming dilemma.
Solving the seeming contradiction between a loving God and the reality of evil is usually referred to as a theodicy. A theodicy attempts to solve the apparent tensions in what is often termed the problem of evil. But the problem of evil is really a series of problems. Like many large problems, sometimes it is helpful to break them down into their components. Evil, you see, actually extends not only to the moral world, but also to the natural world. When human beings do bad things to one another, this is moral evil. But so-called natural disasters are often considered evil as well because of all the suffering they cause. Earthquakes, tidal waves, floods, and so forth, are all examples of what might be termed natural evil.
One helpful approach to solving the problem of evil has to do with defining evil. Christian thinker Augustine defined evil not as a thing in and of itself, but as a parasite on good. Something that is lacking is not a thing in itself. For instance, if you have a hole in your jacket, the hole is not something, but rather is something that is lacking. Similarly, Augustine considered evil something that is missing. Indeed, it requires good to exist because it is a parasite. In this sense, Augustine defined evil as a privation – a lack of something – rather than a thing or substance.
This solves some important criticisms. If evil is not an actual thing, then God cannot be the author of evil. God is the author of good, but we make moral choices that result in evil.
Atheists, skeptics and other critics of Christianity often argue against God on the basis of the reality of evil and suffering. "See," they say, "since evil and suffering exist, God must not exist." Sometimes they will argue that God may exist, but perhaps He is a weak god, an incompetent one or even an evil one!
But do evil and suffering really mean that God does not exist? Some Christians have responded by turning the skeptic's argument on its head. They do this by asking on what basis is something deemed evil? If there is some moral standard the critic is basing their position on, then the problem of evil becomes an argument for not against the reality of God. After all, in order to call something good or evil, there must be an underlying standard of right and wrong. Theists argue that this standard is rooted in God and His nature. We know His moral law exists so we recognize the reality of evil and suffering. But unless there is a moral standard, we have no real basis for calling anything good or evil.
As we noted earlier, there's a difference between moral and natural evil. Moral evil is explained by the fact that human beings commit evil against one another. People lie, cheat, steal, hurt, and more. This does not argue against Christianity, but instead proves the point that there is something very wrong with human nature as it now is.
But what about natural evil? Couldn't there be less suffering? Why doesn't God stop things like earthquakes and tsunamis? Again, this ties into the broad Christian explanation of the human predicament. Paradise has been lost due to human moral shortcomings. As a result, we live in a fallen world, east of Eden. As a result, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (Romans 8:22, NIV).
The good news is that although this is not the best world, it is the best way to the best possible world. Some day God will ultimately and finally overcome evil entirely.
Before continuing, it will be helpful at this point to pause and explain another important point. Evil and suffering can refer to not only physical pain, but emotional pain, too. Consequently, there are differences in approaching the problem of evil depending on whether one is doing it intellectually, in a detached sort of way as we are doing in this article, versus ministering to those in need of compassion. In this sense, there is an intellectual way to address evil and also an emotional way to address it. Both are important and both require our attention, but there is a difference.
But couldn't God have created a world without evil? Let's take a look at a few of the options. If God had not created anything, there would be no evil. But is nothing better than something? Hardly. This would be a world without morality. What if God created a world where people could not choose? God could force everyone to stop before they were able to carry out evil behavior. But is such a world where freedom does not exist good?
God knows best and, as such, He knows that our world is the best way to the best possible world. Yes, there will be evil and suffering along the way. We can rejoice with the apostle Paul when he wrote, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).
Considering all the evil in the world, does God really care about us? Not only does He care, but He cares enough to have sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die for us. Because of God's great love and sacrifice, we now have a way to be reconciled with Him through Christ. This does not mean that we will no longer suffer in this world, but it does mean that we will spend eternity with God. There will come a day when God "will wipe every tear from" our eyes and, "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things" will pass away (Revelation 21:4).