Does God cause or allow pain, calamity, destruction, and death? There are few questions as loaded as this one. Stated another way, does God allow evil to exist or does he cause it? Or, If God is loving and all-powerful why doesn't He stop all this evil and calamity in the world?
Any attempt to answer this question will be greatly influenced by a man's world view. Every man's world view will all but determine his answers to questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. Questions like: How did I come to be? Where did I come from? Why do I exist? Why am I the way I am? How can I change the way I am? Do right and wrong exist? What is right and what is wrong? What is my destiny? What will happen in the end?
If a man endeavors to base his world view as consistently as possible on the belief that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God; that justification is through faith in Jesus Christ alone; that salvation is by God's grace alone, through His son Jesus Christ who is the only mediator between God and men; and that all glory is due God alone because all of these things came about as direct acts of His will (which is not affected by any force or being outside of Himself), then a man with such a world view will answer these questions in a way that is more coherent than if he were to have another basis for his world view. I think John Piper said it most succinctly, "More light shines on life from inside the Christian world view than from any other world view."
When faced with the question of whether God allows pain, calamity, destruction and death or whether He causes them we are quickly presented with the basis of our world view, the foundational variables that we rely on as we relate to the world and all that goes on in it.
Astronomers' models of our solar system were consistently erroneous until the seven assumptions of heliocentrism where introduced. One of the assumptions stated that the Sun was the center of the solar system, not Earth. Once astronomers began correcting their calculations according to the assumptions of heliocentrism they began to achieve success and accuracy in their work. In much the same way, judgments made on the basis of our world view will be wrong if we put ourselves at the center of all things, instead of placing the God who is revealed to us in the Bible at the center.
Is God good or is He all-powerful? This is a typical question that arises when the question of pain is brought up. Someone will say, "Certainly God cannot be all powerful if so much bad happens under His nose." or "Certainly God cannot be good if he causes so much bad to happen." This dilemma is brought about when we make the assumption that humans are basically good and deserving of good things and that it is out of character for a good God to cause bad things to happen to them. If we imagine that all people are basically good and deserving of only good things then all the bad in the world must take place because God is either not good or not all-powerful. But, can God be both good and all-powerful?
The Bible says that God is supremely sovereign, He is immutable, He is eternally existent, He is solitary, He is omniscient, He is holy, and He does everything for the sake of His own pleasure. He is infinitely all of these things all at the same time. So, he is both good, and all-powerful, and holy, all at the same time. If this is true then can He cause bad things to happen and still be perfectly consistent within His character? As long as we hold to the idea that humans are basically good at their core we cannot move past this dilemma. We will be forever doomed to construct fictional theologies on top of either a notion that God is good at the expense of the rest of His attributes or He is a mean spirited God who takes pleasure in senselessly burning ants with His great supernatural magnifying glass. However, if we take hold of the Biblical truth that all humans are depraved until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and that God disciplines those He has regenerated because He loves them as a father loves his children, once we take hold of these truths we will be able to reconcile the dilemma and move on toward an answer to our initial question.
Now for another question. Why does God do what He does? This is a critical question at this stage. Without a proper understanding of why God does what He does we will run amok in our attempt to answer the question of pain and evil.
The Bible says that God does all things for the sake of His name. He is completely focused on Himself, the most valuable and worthy object of His affections is Him. He has no other Gods before Himself. He is a happy God who is wrapped up in His own perfections and He has set Himself up as a lover of those who also treasure his perfections and an enemy of all who refuse to embrace Him as the ultimate object of affection. Since God is the most perfect and valuable object worthy of our affections then he would be infinitely unloving to direct us toward anything but Himself. Instead, He insists that we treasure Him alone or be punished forever. If we set up the Bible to be the Word of God then all good and evil must be judged in comparison with God's ideas about good and evil. Through the Bible, God says that good is anything that brings God attention, worship, and glory and evil, or bad, is anything that directs the praise or attention away from God.
God is infinite in every one of His attributes, therefore, even the smallest slight against Him is worthy of infinite punishment. It is for this reason that all people who remain in their depravity to the end will be punished for eternity. God has selected the most exquisite punishment and stands ready to execute it, with pleasure, on all who continue to rebel against Him. He is so committed to proving His infinite value that He will not allow His infinite worth to be dishonored in even the most minute way. People will either praise and enjoy Him forever as Father and lover in Heaven or they will wish they had when they are being tortured for eternity in Hell, either way His name will be made great. He will be viewed as the Savior King by His subjects or the Conquering King by His enemies. Either way he is established as the ultimate, His name will be made great.
From the day Adam and Eve violated the command of God the human race has been born into a depraved state, destined for punishment at the hands of God. Depraved people resist the notion that they are depraved because they instinctively know that a person who is depraved is worthy of punishment. This is, in fact, what the Bible teaches. We are all born depraved and at war with God. We are born shaking our fists at God, to the point that some of us deny that God even exists. Depraved people are unable to see their own folly and therefore are unable to save themselves. Depraved people believe they are basically good but sometimes do bad things. Depraved people look inward or at other people as the basis for determining how good or bad they are. Depraved people wake up in the morning and go about their business without a second thought for the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-sustaining Creator-God of the universe, the One who made them and keeps them alive.
The worst thing in the world isn't that bad things happening to people. Yes, children get raped, babies get killed for convenience, genocide wipes out entire people groups, tsunamis kill thousands, and the rich make more while the poor starve. But none of these come close to the ultimate travesty. I do not know how the death of my first son brings glory to God. It is not clear to me why we had to experience the pain of loosing a child. I don't want you to think I have every answer or somehow know everything God knows. However, the Bible shows us clearly that these are not the most tragic evils in the world. No, the most terrible evil in the world is that the most valuable object in the universe is ignored, disdained, and ridiculed. The worst thing in the world is that the One who created everything, the One who tortured, crushed, and killed His own Son so that His creation could be reconciled with Him, the One who animates and sustains all things is ignored and the desire, worship, and praise that should be given to Him is directed at other things. That is the worst evil of all. For this evil God destroyed all but a select few living creatures in the great flood. For this self-centered evil He confused the languages of the people and spread them over the earth. For this self-reliant and prideful evil He killed every first born in Egypt. For this arrogent and dilplorable evil He destroyed all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. For this evil everyone who dies in rebellion against Him will suffer for eternity at the hands of God in Hell, and yet He remains perfectly holy and without any speck of evil or sin.
At this point you may find yourself recoiling against what I have said. You might think I have a demented view of God. Perhaps you are thinking, "I don't like that God." No kidding. What child likes facing their paddle-wielding parent when they have done something deserving of punishment? But why don't you like this God? Does He seem selfish? Perhaps He comes across as arrogant. Do you find yourself asking, "What gives Him the right to treat me like that?" Is He a man that you should believe you have a claim against Him? No, you are the creation and He made you and all the rules. He does not make mistakes and He alone is in the place of judgment and He cannot be bribed or influenced in any way. He answers to no one.
Is the potter justified in smashing one of his creations? What right does the broken shard have to say to the potter, "Why do you treat me this way?" The potter smashed it because it pleased him. It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of will. The potter is the creator and his will supersedes that of his creations. He creates vases for royalty and pots for excrement, the same potter makes both. Who is to question his decisions? Can the creation do what the Creator can do? Ask Job.
Depraved people need to be saved from the wrath that will be executed on them. They need a Savior who can change them and bring them from the status of enemy to a status of child, from a position of impending wrath at the hands of an all-powerful and justified enemy, to a position of all-encompassing joy in the arms of an infinitely loving, holy, and joyful lover. The warring rebel is on the verge of eternity experiencing new revelations of terror with new depths of pain, while the repentant child is on the verge of experiencing new facets of contentment and new heights of joy as God's infinite attributes are continually unfolded.
Through His infinite grace God sent his only Son, the eternally existent, perfect character match, totally equivalent in all attributes, God-man, Jesus. He lived, died, and come back to life in order to take the torture in our place, the torture all depraved people deserve. By faith in Jesus, as the only mediator of reconciliation between men and God, those who trust God's by staking their lives on the promise of reconciliation through Jesus Christ are able to repent of their sins and know that God will not dash them to pieces like the excrement pots. Instead, those who believe will be installed as holy, sinless, vases of praise in the palace of Almighty God for eternity to witness and rejoice in all of the attributes of the Creator.
All well and good, but how can evil in the form of Satan and his demons be explained? Clearly they have a role to play in all this? How do we explain the vial things people do to each other? The Bible is clear that the entire world is cursed because of Adam's original sin. We also know from Scripture that God created Satan and the other fallen angels. They are all creatures, all subject to God's supreme will. We also know that they have evil intents as they incite people against each other and against God. Yet, time and again what they intend for evil ends up working out for good, for all of those who believe through Christ.
If you walked in the door to a crying boy and a father holding a paddle you might ask, "Did you just spank him?" If the father tried some semantic gymnastics and said that he didn't spank his boy but he simply allowed the paddle in his hand to fall on to his son's back side you would see through it immediately. You know that paddles don't spank kids, people do. The question is what was the intent of the person administering the spanking? In order to determine the intent you'd ask, "Why did you spank him?" If the father replied, "I just like watching him scream." You would say the father had evil intent. On the other hand if the father said, "Yes, I spanked him. I wanted my son to learn that telling the truth is extremely important and no matter how uncomfortable the situation he must always tell the truth." You would say that the father's intent was noble.
Let's imagine a variation on this idea. Imagine the father witnesses his overbearing 9 year old son picking a fight with a 14 year old kid who is twice his size and looks like he's about to pummel his boy. Instead of intervening the father decides to allow his son to experience the natural consequences of his actions because he knows that his son will learn a powerful lesson. You might question the father's tactics but you would still consider his intent noble.
What is our intent when we sin? Is it noble or evil? It is always evil because it violates God's perfect standard of holiness. What is Satan's intent when he incites someone to sin? Is it noble or evil? It is always evil because Satan is in the business of getting us to direct our affections away from God. What is God's intent when he permits a person to sin, or Satan to incite someone to sin? It is always holy and noble because there is no sin in Him and He is completely holy. Whenever such things occur it is to show that He is the ultimate, infinite, most excellent object to be desired and worshiped.
We've come a long way. Let's do a quick recap before answering the question of pain. God is God-centered, not man-centered. He is all-powerful and his will is unaffected by anyone or anything external to Him. God's Word is the only source of truth and His Word is the only standard by which good and evil can be judged. Man is born depraved and destined for eternal punishment for sinful thoughts, actions, and inclinations. Man, out of remorse over his sin, needs to repent for directing his affections away from God and sinning against Him. Man needs a Savior to be reconciled with God. God sent Jesus Christ to live, die, and live again so that He could provide a way, the only way, to have our sins removed and be reconciled with God. Anyone who continues in rebellion he will be eternally tortured for his sin against holy God.
The Bible is clear, God orchestrated the evil events surrounding the trial, torture, and execution of Jesus before the world was created. He did not only know beforehand that they would happen. No, the Bible says He both knew and caused them through direct acts of His will. What would motivate God to do such a thing to His only Son? The Bible says He did it to show that His love, holiness, and justice are as infinite as He is. Someone had to pay for all this sin and He knew that the only person who was qualified to atone for it and pay the entire debt in full was His Son, Jesus. God never caused anyone to suffer more than His own Son. Calculate all the pain and suffering that has been experienced through all of History and multiply it a trillion times. The resulting value would not begin to approach the terrible wrath that Christ Jesus experienced at the hands of His Father. God aimed all of His wrath at the only innocent being to walk the face of the Earth so that He could purchase for Himself a group of passionate worshippers. Those who believe have been bought with a dear price and once they recognize it they have no choice but to direct their praise and worship to God.
If God had chosen to destroy the Earth and all living creatures again He would have been perfectly justified in doing so. Instead, He ordained a profound display of His infinite grace and infinite mercy by sending His Son to die in a terribly sinful and agonizing way to pay a debt that could never be paid by the people who owed it. Those who repent and believe are the beneficiaries of this amazing grace and incredible mercy.
I'm sure by now you can guess where I'm going to land on this one. Yes, God causes pain, suffering, calamity, destruction, and death. But it would be wrong for me to end here. He causes everything to display His own glory, to spread His fame and create passionate worshippers. When he causes these things He is not doing it to be barbaric or draconian. He is doing it to prove that He is worthy of all worship. What can finite people give to an infinite God but worship.
What can a guest give to his host who has prepared the most excellent meal he has ever experienced? The most excellent and honoring response would be to ask for seconds and tell all his friends of the incredible hospitality and excellence of His host. This is what it means to give praise and worship to God for His many perfections. The very act of writing this for you has been an act of love for you so that you will come to see Jesus as the ultimate object worthy of your affections, it has been an act of worship toward God, a beautiful offering and a pleasing aroma to the Lord because only He is worthy of our affections.
Now that you have heard me say that God causes calamity and pain, how will you respond to this? Will you adopt a lesser view of God and handicap Him in your mind so that you can "manage" Him and treat Him as your personal genie? Or will you fall on your face and repent of your infinite offenses against Him and ask Jesus to be your savior, the mediator between you and God, so that you can be welcomed into His arms and praise His Glory for eternity, starting now. If you choose to embrace Him the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will see to it that all things work together for your ultimate good.
All Glory to God, to Jesus who sits on the throne of Heaven. He alone is worthy of honor and glory and praise.
Recommendations and References:
1 Chronicles 21:1
2 Samuel 24:1