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This article has been adapted for web from Chapter 7 of my up-coming book ‘Answering The Atheist’.
A dear atheist friend once told me that the moment she stopped believing in God was when she first laid eyes on the now iconic photo of a starving Sudanese child with a vulture in the background. The famous photograph was taken by South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, who was in Sudan at the time documenting a food drop-off by the United Nations.  The child was apparently trying to make her way to the food station when she collapsed, and vultures (being vultures) started circling. The photograph is truly disturbing and had understandably touched my soft-hearted friend deeply. She couldn’t fathom a God that would allow that sort of misery.
She’s not alone in that type of sentiment.
British comedian and vocal atheist, Stephen Fry was recently interviewed by Gay Byrne on ‘The Meaning of Life’ show. Byrne asked Stephen what he would say if he came face to face with God. Here is a transcript of Stephen’s reply:
I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say. 
One might imagine that Charles Darwin stopped believing in God because of ‘science’, but in reality he had stopped believing in God long before he completed his theory of evolution. According to a biography , the death knell for his belief in God was the untimely death of his daughter Annie in 1851. Like many grieving parents, he must have been angry at the injustice of losing his beloved child, and couldn’t resolve that a loving God just sat back and watched. He went on to publish ‘On the Origin of Species’ eight years later.
Many struggle with understanding why God allows natural disasters, rapists, murderers, untimely death, and terribly cruel people free reign. As I see it, the answer to these types of questions is multi-faceted, so the rest of the chapter is divided into sub sections that are loosely tied together.
Right from the beginning in the Garden of Eden, God gave us free will. He pointed out the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam and Eve and told them not to eat of it. He could have simply made them obey, but he did not. He gave them a choice. He told them what his will was (which was for them to obey), and he told them what would happen if they exercised their own will and went ahead and ate it anyway (punishment). Then he allowed the serpent to test them. Would they do the right thing or would they do their own thing?
If God stepped in to stop Adam and Eve from eating that fruit, he would have denied their free will.
Likewise, if God stops a rapist in the act, he would also be denying free will the chance to operate. Even if God only stopped violent crime, in time we would forget the scope of evil and find less violent crime appalling, wondering why God allows thieving and gossiping. At some point in the meddling of free will, wouldn’t we cease being human, and instead become robotic drones?
Must God resort to compulsion in order for us to behave?
It’s clear from the gift of free will that God doesn’t want that. God desires for us to use our free will and to choose to do the right thing. We can do whatever we want. We are not free from the consequences of our actions however, and at some point there will be consequences – whether it’s our own conscience torturing us with guilt, whether it’s lawful imprisonment for crimes committed, or whether it’s being turned away at the proverbial pearly gates after we die…there will be consequences.
Moses said the following…
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
Deuteronomy 30:19-20 [ESV]
God has given us choices and he has given us consequences for making those choices. Punishment for the wrong choice and reward for making the right choice. Of course sometimes when bad things happen, there is no choice involved. What about evil events over which humans have no choice, like being struck by lightning, getting swept away by a tsunami, or fatally poisoned by a peanut? Sometimes it seems that nature itself is bent on evil.
Christian apologist, Ron Rhodes’ philosophy is that evil does not exist on its own. It is just a corruption of something that does exist…
“Evil is indeed the absence or privation of something good. Rot, for example, can only exist as long as the tree exists. Tooth decay can only exist as long as the tooth exists. Rust on a car, a decaying carcass, blind eyes, deaf ears illustrate the same point. Evil exists as a corruption of something good; it is a privation and does not have essence by itself.”
Ron Rhodes 
Apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek break it down nicely:
“Evil is like rust to a car. If you take away all the rust, you have a better car. If you take away all the car, you have nothing”
Norman Geisler and Frank Turek 
Ron Rhodes elaborates that evil is when something good that is supposed to be there is absent. For example an eye should have sight, so if blindness occurs, that is evil, whereas a tree shouldn’t have sight so the absence of sight in the tree is not evil. Added to that, consider what Dr Jonathan Sarfati says:
“Considering a moral evil like murder, this is a removal of a ‘good’ human life. Adultery is a privation of a good marriage. Good is fundamental and can exist in itself; evil cannot exist in itself. Evil is always a parasite on good.”
Dr Jonathan Sarfati 
The point that all those gentleman make goes back to that fateful free will choice of Adam and Eve. Their choice brought about a separation from God. We should be with God in his presence – that would be good. We aren’t, therefore there is evil.
In Genesis 1, after each thing God creates, he calls it ‘good’. After God said ‘Let there be Light’, the Bible says ‘And God saw that the light was good.’; After God separated the earth from the seas, ‘God saw that it was good.’; After he produced vegetation, , ‘God saw that it was good.’ And so on. Chapter 1 of Genesis ends as follows:
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Genesis 1:31 [ESV]
Then in Genesis 3, after ‘The Fall’, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and cut off from the presence God – they are separated from the ultimate good (God).
Not only that, but the following verse indicates the earth itself could no longer be considered good…
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Genesis 3:17-19 [ESV]
God’s creation which he previously looked at as being very good had now become corrupted. So one might argue that natural disasters are also because Adam and Eve disobeyed. I don’t believe that God is sitting and contemplating who next he can smite with a tornado or a flood, but he allows rot, decay and tragedy in our now imperfect world as a consequence of the poor choices made by Adam and Eve.
The Apostle Paul writes:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18-23 [ESV]
So that which was created is no longer good because it is has been separated from God who is the ultimate source of good. So we wait to be reunited. Not just us humans, but all of creation. The earth that quakes, the waves that swallow people, the food that poisons. It all waits to be reunited with good and purged of the corruption that is evil.
But what do we do while we wait? Do we cry about it or do we try to find the silver lining?
TO BRING ABOUT A GREATER GOOD
As a mildly recalcitrant child I hated peas. Hated them! In my limited understanding, I would wonder:
“Why do I have to eat peas? I’ve told my parents over and over that they taste like sand.”
I didn’t know that the simple green pea has an exceptional nutrient composition with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.  To be honest, neither did my parents, but they knew that veggies were good for me so I wasn’t allowed to leave the table with veggies still on my plate. If they had left me to my own devices, I would have lived on canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, which for some inexplicable reason was really appealing to me back then. Gag. This would have resulted in me being a sickly, malnourished child. I probably would have grown up to be obese with no will power.
So the ‘torture’ of eating peas (which I love now by the way) served a greater good. In life that that is often the case. At the time of suffering, we don’t see the point, but in hindsight we have 20/20 vision. Just like a child not being able to see the benefit of peas, in relation, our adult minds are also limited in terms of God’s purposes and being able to see the bigger picture.
In scripture, we see some examples of this…
Joseph is sold into slavery courtesy of his jealous brothers and ends up rising to a position of power in Egypt where he is able to help his family in the time of famine. When Joseph confronts his brothers, he says:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Genesis 50:20 [ESV]
This attitude of being able to recognise the good that comes from a terrible tragedy is what sets survivors apart from those who become bitter and self-destructive.
Later in the history of the Jews, the prophet Amos addresses the Samarians and explains why they have had so much calamity.
“I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me,” declares the LORD. “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,” declares the LORD. “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,” declares the LORD.
Amos 4:9-11 [ESV]
Prior to this passage, Amos describes how the Samarians, in their rebellion against God and devotion to idol worship, have oppressed the poor and crushed the needy. The Lord sends them pestilence, etcetera in order to get them to change their ways. The Samarians, at this point had a choice – they could turn to God and change their ways (turn a bad situation into a good one), or they could self-destruct in their debauchery.
I read an article  recently that really highlights the concept of introducing a bit of peril for the greater good. In this article, the journalist gives some commentary on a short documentary video entitled ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’ . The documentary explains how, without any natural predators, the deer in Yellowstone park had reduced the vegetation to almost nothing. They introduced a pack of wolves to the Park who killed some of the deer and forced the rest to avoid certain parts of the park. Immediately those places started to regenerate and this resulted in birds, beavers, otters, and many other animals moving into these now sustainable areas. A whole new ecosystem arose simply because of the wolves keeping the deer population in check. My nutshell description really doesn’t do the video justice, so do yourself a favour and watch it on YouTube – it’s only about 4 minutes long, but worth the watch. The point the article writer made was this:
Try for a moment to imagine a board meeting where, after hearing desperate pleas for help to save the aspen trees of Yellowstone, a park ranger responded by saying, “I’ll tell you what will ensure reforestation: a few more wolves around here!” Would anyone have taken him seriously? In the same way, I think we would accuse God of being insane if we heard him respond to our cries for greater intimacy with our spouse, greater fruit in our ministries, or greater intimacy with him, by saying, “You want more life? I’ll tell you what will give it: a medical emergency. Or losing your job. Or a car accident.” We would think he’s out of his mind.
Even the sacrifice of Jesus by the bloodthirsty masses, as evil as the event was, was for the greater good. His death paid for our sins and the fall of man. If we accept that, we can be reunited with the ultimate source of good. His death was for the greater good.
Of course sometimes, we don’t even need hindsight to realise that suffering also makes us appreciate good things more…
We’ve all seen the Asian, circular symbol which consists of two swirls, one white and one black. This represents Yin-Yang, a Taoist philosophy that explains how polar opposites, like good and evil, are dependent on each other and in fact, only exist in relation to each other.  As was previously explained, evil is the absence or corruption of good, so good is certainly not dependent on evil, however it can also be pointed out that the perception of good only makes sense because of badness. We only understand what light is because of darkness. We only understand ‘temperate climate’ because of ‘extreme weather’, or ‘good looking’ because of ‘ugly’.
King Solomon said:
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Proverbs 16:4 [ESV]
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Ecclesiastes 7:14 [ESV]
How would we comprehend the warmth of summer without having known the chill of winter? How would we recognise and appreciate a kind and good person if we were never treated badly by a mean one?
Take a moment to really think about that.
You only know what happiness is because you have been sad at some point. Without the bad, we would take the good for granted. No matter how pious you behave, in your heart you know this to be true, and that brings us to the fourth point…
We can see examples of ungratefulness on many American reality TV shows. I won’t name names, but you know the kind…shows featuring the day to day life of the obscenely rich. Ordinary folk like us can’t believe how shallow these people can be…
The son throws a tantrum because the parents bought him an Xbox when he really wanted a PlayStation. The daughter starts swearing at and calling the father names because he failed to book the boy-band she wanted for her birthday party. The wife spends the day at the beauty salon gossiping and scandalising about everyone in town. The husband complains about his family to his golf buddies while ogling the female serving ladies. Just ugly behaviour all round.
In third world countries like South Africa, we laugh derisively at their ‘first world problems’, as I’m sure the people of Palestine would laugh at the ‘problems’ of the average South African. We can see from these episodes that a life without any hardship or tribulation, gives rise to arrogant, ungrateful, completely vacuous individuals.
People ask why ‘bad things happen to good people’ and why in fact God allows us to suffer. Job (who knew a bit about suffering) said:
“…when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.”
King Solomon pointed out:
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.
Proverbs 17:3 [ESV]
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:2-4 [ESV]
and some of the wise shall stumble, so that they may be refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end, for it still awaits the appointed time.
Daniel 11:35 [ESV]
“And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.'”
Zechariah 13:9 [ESV]
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5 [ESV]
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 [ESV]
Bad things happen to good people all the time, and often they come out better for it. Prolific author and speaker, Joyce Meyer says we should “Look for the treasure in every trial.” Joyce, a previous victim of abuse, goes on to say:
The truth is, I’ve done most of my spiritual growing during the hardest and most painful times of my life. The trials of life have caused me to press in to God. And as I’ve done that, He’s changed me. He’s helped me to develop an attitude of gratitude and humility, which has brought real freedom into my life. 
So God allows calamity to befall us to help us grow into better individuals.
As much as we may want to believe that we were born nice, and grateful, and reasonable, the truth is that all the hardship and tribulation in our lives is shaping us into individuals of worth. We’ve all heard of many celebrities who seemingly have everything going for them…riches, fame, good looks, lives of ease…at the end of the day, they take these things for granted and descend into despair and escapism with drugs and suicide.
In his book ‘The End of Reason’, the apologist Ravi Zacharias talks of Oscar Wilde’s hedonistic lifestyle and resultant pitiful epitaph. He then notes:
“…some of the loneliest people I have met or read about are those who have had everything and experienced little of what we usually consider pain; yet, they too have pain – pain resulting from having indulged and come away empty.” 
Few people have enough empathy to be able to become better people by watching others in their time of tribulation. Sadly, few people learn the easy way. For most, they need to experience hard times for themselves. Trouble free lives of ease and comfort turn them either into superficial, churlish drama queens, or depressed and suicidal.
Trouble isn’t the only way to grow though…
THE DEVIL HAS A PLAN
We know that God is a good, good father and his intentions for us are good. He wants us to be well. The prophet Jeremiah puts it this way:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 [ESV]
If you put your trust in God, you can extract good from a bad situation, but that does not mean that you should take every bad situation lying down. God’s plans for you are for good, but God isn’t the only one who has a plan for you. The devil has altogether different plans. Jesus reminds us:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
John 10:10 [ESV]
The apostle Peter also tells us to remain vigilant…
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
1 Peter 5:8 [ESV]
So the devil is out to get us, but why does God allow it?
The devil’s origins would probably need its own chapter, or possibly even book, but most theologians believe that Satan was once an angel named Lucifer whose pride caused the downfall of himself and a third of the heavenly host. That means Satan was also created with free will – free to sin, and be evil just like us. Other theologians don’t believe that the devil is from God at all, but what is generally agreed upon is that the earth is the devil’s battleground and we are his opponents.
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
1 John 5:19 [ESV]
As written in Matthew 4, the devil even tried to tempt Jesus himself.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Matthew 4:8-9 [ESV]
So regardless of where he comes from, the devil is wicked, he is here with us, has some sort of power, and his plans for us are not good. We aren’t helpless though – it is possible to fight back. Ephesians 6:12 makes it clear that the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual evil. We are told to protect ourselves and engage in Spiritual warfare against the devil and his demons:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
Ephesians 6:11-18 [ESV]
The armour of God is a study on its own, but we can take practical advice from Jesus’ example of how he wielded the sword of the Spirit against the devil’s three attacks documented in Matthew 4. In each case, Jesus started his counterattack with “It is Written”, and then went on to quote scripture. The devil’s plans were not successful with Jesus.
So if we know what the scriptures say, we don’t always have to do things the hard way. In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us to ask God not to lead us into temptation but deliver us from evil. We should always be asking God to help us learn things the painless way, but acknowledging that if we do experience unnecessary suffering, there is a potential for good to come from that pain, even if it is only to help someone else…
Earlier in this chapter we touched on the concept of free will. We also spoke of Kevin Carter’s starving child photograph. God gave Kevin Carter, the photographer, the free will to choose to shoo away the vulture, pick up the little girl and take her to the food station, and God also gave him the free will to instead slowly inch up to the child so as not to scare away the vulture, focus his camera and capture an award winning photograph. The latter is what Carter chose to do.
As depicted in the 2010 movie The Bang Bang Club  which was about Kevin Carter and his peers from the Star newspaper, Carter came under a lot of fire from people wanting to know the fate of the child and why he didn’t do more. Kevin Carter committed suicide only 3 months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for that heart wrenching photo.  According to an article entitled “Vulture Stalking a Child” on Iconic Photos, Carter had confided in a friend “I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up.” 
Perhaps Carter made the wrong choice. In his defence, my editor quite fairly points out that the function of journalism is to be the eyes for the world, the window into places and situations the rest of the world cannot see. When journalists interact with the situations they are reporting, they change the story. For example, the headline “There is famine and people, children are dying.” can change to “Journalist saves child.”
Our personal views regarding his inaction aside, it’s also conceivable that without that particular photo, the dire need in Sudan and certain other parts of Africa would have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Sometimes we are wildly unaware of how good we have things until we see something like that.
What’s more is when we experience hard times ourselves, we are better able to empathise with others going through a similar problem even years after we have overcome a trial…because we remember the pain. It’s for this reason that so many drug abuse counsellors were themselves drug abusers in the past. Someone who knows what you are going through (because they’ve been there) is a truly compassionate comforter. That person can empathise with you and will often give you the best advice on how to overcome.
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.
Deuteronomy 24:17-22 [ESV]
In the above passage Moses gives rules to the Hebrews concerning treating the poor with compassion. He asks them twice to remember that they were slaves once. Because they knew how it felt to be poor and at the mercy of others, they could more easily offer mercy to those facing the same or similar situation.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5 [ESV]
Just as the sayings go ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and ‘everything happens for a reason’, if you choose to look for the silver lining of the rain cloud or the treasure in your trial, you will complain less and live a happier life. That is not to say that we need to resign ourselves to our problems – we should always fight against the devil with the truth of scripture, but also focus on the positive experience we receive from dark times. The treasure may turn out simply to be that you can offer comfort and mercy to someone else later down the road.
This article has been adapted for web from Chapter 7 of my up-coming book ‘Answering The Atheist’.
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