Contrary to popular media, backed by (very) illuminate luminaries who proclaim that belief in our God, Yahweh, is the intellectual kin to Holocaust denial or "flat-earthism"—the evidence for God, Yahweh, is compelling.
First, nothing created itself, and so whatever once didn’t exist but, then, did—did so only because something else had created it. Unless one argues, as some do, that the universe arose from nothing—which itself needs no explanation (after all, it’s nothing)—the only logical alternative is an eternally existing Creator such as Yahweh. And that’s because—like nothing (though for different reasons)—an eternally existing also God needs no explanation. On the contrary, He is the foundation of all explanation. So, either 1.) Nothing created the universe; or, 2.) God did.
Take your pick.
Second, despite atheistic evolution having become an axiom, assumed and deemed unassailable (as for almost 2000 years the geo-centric cosmos had been), it’s a miracle that we are here. Every form of life (from jellyfish to Gentiles) testifies to our Creator, and only minds darkened by ideology cannot see the obvious.
Yet, however good these (and other) arguments are, they don't answer, or even approach, the question of why there is so much pain and suffering in a world created by God.
How do we answer it?
The Free Will Defense
As one of the most highly respected and influential Christian philosophers of our time, Alvin Plantinga (born 1932) is best known for carefully and effectively defending this following position: nothing in the notion of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God (Yahweh) means that the free creature He had created will never do evil or wrong. That is, the existence of a God, like Yahweh, does not logically, deductively, mean that evil cannot occur. No inherent paradox arises from the existence of God and the presence of evil in His creation, as if the reality of the latter (evil) proves the impossibility of the former (God). Many atheist philosophers concede Plantinga’s point, if not his God.
Of course, we’re Seventh-day Adventists, and we know that there’s no paradox between God’s existence and the reality of evil. This is foundational to our theology, the background to the great controversy even. Fine—but this still doesn’t answer the question that bothers us all: how to explain all these evils if God is, as the wonders of creation and the sacrifice of the cross so dramatically reveal, a God of love.
His Own Burden
At one of the most glorious moments in ancient Israelite history, Solomon knelt on a bronze platform before his newly constructed temple and, with hands spread toward heaven, prayed. Early on he asked that if His people disobeyed, and calamities came, but they then prayed toward “this place, "1 the sanctuary, the Lord would forgive their sin. He next talked about the evils—famine, pestilence, blight, besieging enemies—that would befall them if they rebelled. Then, in this context, that of their sufferings, he prays about each one “knowing his own affliction (ng’o) and his own sorrow (makh’ovo).”2
Think of the implications of these words—each person knowing only his (her) own affliction, his (her) own sorrow—as obvious as they are. Amid all the atrocities, catastrophes, and suffering throughout history, no single human has ever suffered more than a single human can suffer. Each person knows only his own makh’ov, his own ng,’ never another’s (no matter how close or intimate). You can’t splice into anyone else’s nerves and feel a prick of their pain, a spasm of their woe. You can endure no more than whatever surges through your own nerves (estimated about at 40 miles worth in an adult) and stews in your own body’s chemicals. Contrary to the phrase, I feel your pain, you don’t, never do. The pain that you feel is yours, not theirs.
The numbers, yes, paralyze us: six million dead (Holocaust), one million (the Killing Fields), 20 million (the Spanish flu), 230,000 (the 2004 Thailand tsunami)—yet whether people suffer en masse, or alone, each one bears no more than what their own delirious cells can carry. There’s no such thing as “the sum total of human suffering” because human suffering is never summed up and totaled. What's yours is yours alone. (Be glad. Bearing your own pain is hard enough; imagine bearing another’s?)
There is, however, one exception. Isaiah 53:4, in depicting and predicting Jesus’ death on the cross, reads: “Surely, He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Whose sorrows? Ours—as in the entire world’s. Who else’s? “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”3
We shouldn’t read more into Isaiah 53:4 than is there, but not less, either. In contrast to each individual, who knows only “his own grief” (makh’ovo), the text says Jesus endured ours, the world’s, as well. The word translated as "sorrows” in Isaiah 53:4 is the same noun, makh’ov, that appeared in 2 Chronicles 6:29 in the third person singular (“his own sorrow”). In Isaiah 53:4 it’s in first person plural: Jesus bore makh’ovenu, “our sorrows,” that is, the whole world’s. What we, each person, ever suffered individually —Christ, as our substitute, bore corporately.
Though not saying exactly the same thing, Ellen White here is close enough: "Man has not been made a sin-bearer, and he will never know the horror of the curse of sin which the Saviour bore. No sorrow can bear any comparison with the sorrow of Him upon whom the wrath of God fell with overwhelming force. Human nature can endure but a limited amount of test and trial. The finite can only endure the finite measure, and human nature succumbs, but the nature of Christ had a greater capacity for suffering; for the human existed in the divine nature, and created a capacity for suffering to endure that which resulted from the sins of a lost world.”4
Rather than create robots, God created us as free beings capable of love. And He did so, knowing even before “time began” (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Revelation 13:8) that the moral freedom required for love would lead Him—with His “greater capacity for suffering”—to endure more suffering than any human being ever would, or could. But He did it, anyway.
A Wretched Calculus
But, still, how do we understand, or make sense, of so much pain and evil? We can’t. We’re not supposed to. Otherwise what? During the Millennium, when we “shall know just as” we are “known”5 and when “the hidden things of darkness” are revealed6 someone is going to say: Oh, praise you, Jesus! Now I know why my wife and two babies were burned alive in the firebombing of Tokyo. Yes, now that I understand I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Or, Oh, yes, Lord, now I understand why my eight-year-old got cancer, suffered for three years in the hospital, lost two limbs, and died a painful death, anyway? Thank you, Jesus! It all makes perfect sense now.
Come on! What transcendent logic could justify these tragedies? To give a logical reason for them would, in a sense, excuse them—and what a wretched moral calculus that would be! Isn’t it better for evil to be nonsensical than sensible, unjustifiable rather than justifiable? We can’t understand evil because it’s not understandable. If evil made sense, if it could fit into some logical and rational plan, then it wouldn’t be so evil because it would serve a rational purpose—and what higher purpose could justify the eight-year-old’s suffering and death, much less the family being burned alive in Tokyo? If there were a higher purpose, I’d shudder to know it.
And, too, all things working together “for good to them that love God”7 does not mean that all things are good. All things are, definitely, not good, and whatever good might come from evil is, often, a gruesomely vile exchange. Well, Joe, at least since your daughter overdosed and died you have been a nicer person.
In the end, God Himself, not evil itself, will be vindicated. Theodicy is the justification of God—not of evil. At the cross, God, in our flesh, bore makh’ovenu, suffering from the evil of this world in ways that no human, since Adam on, ever did or will. Here is the ultimate vindication of God.
“The cross of Christ will be the science and the song of the redeemed through all
eternity. In Christ glorified they will behold Christ crucified. Never will it be forgotten that He whose power created and upheld the unnumbered worlds through the vast realms of space, the Beloved of God, the Majesty of Heaven, He whom cherub and shining seraph delighted to adore,—humbled himself to uplift fallen man; that he bore the guilt and shame of sin, and the hiding of his Father's face, till the woes of a lost world broke his heart and crushed out his life on Calvary's cross. That the Maker of all worlds, the Arbiter of all destinies, should lay aside his glory, and humiliate himself from love to man, will ever excite the wonder and adoration of the universe."8
All of this ultimately doesn't explain evil or justify it. Nothing can; nothing should. What it does show is that we can love and trust God despite the evil that will corrode our souls if we try to understand what’s inexplicable.
1 2 Chronicles 6:29 ESV
2 2 Chronicles 6:29 ESV
3 1 John 2:2
4 MS 35, 1895
5 1 Corinthians 13:12
6 1 Corinthians 4:5
7 Romans 8:28
8 GC 651