At the moment, our world is on fire with social unrest, racial injustice, and an unrelenting pandemic that’s constantly wearing us out. We’ve just reached another grim milestone of 800,000 deaths in our country—so many that we risk becoming numb to it all.
It feels like this suffering is shaking all that can be shaken, right to the core (Heb. 12:25–29). Because of the global fragility we are all collectively experiencing, I would guess I am not alone in feeling a sense of God’s absence … or, worse, in sensing the presence of an uncaring God.
But my guess would be wrong.
The latest poll from Pew Research Center surveyed over 6,000 American adults—including 1,421 evangelicals—about why they think bad things happen to good people.
The most common answer? It is what it is—life just happens, says 35 percent of folks. The next highest response, coming from 13 percent, is that suffering is God’s will. The rest of the respondents believe that evil is the result of Satan, sinful human nature, free will, karma, societal systems, or opportunities for spiritual growth.
But here’s the kicker: Of the 9 in 10 Americans who believe in God or a higher power, over 80 percent say that suffering does not make them doubt God’s existence, God’s power, or God’s love. Not even sometimes.
So much suffering in the world, and yet most Americans are not doubting God.
That should be good news, right? … Or is it?
Perhaps this survey indicates a general ignorance about the classical tension between God and evil. Or maybe it shows a swing away from popular evangelical narratives that view suffering as a form of God’s punishment or judgment toward sinners, often with reference to natural disasters.
Some of these statistics may also reflect certain theological approaches to the problem of evil, known as “theodicies,” which have trickled down from seminaries into local churches over time.
A common one in evangelical circles is the “free-will defense,” which states that evil is the result of God giving humans a free will. This runs parallel with 71 percent of US adults who agreed with the statement that suffering is primarily a consequence of people’s own actions.
Another approach, called “felix culpa” (or “happy fall”), says that God is justified for allowing evil and suffering because it paved the way for Christ to redeem the world—and that this end ultimately justified the means.
Or it could be that these recent statistics indicate a general malaise and stoic apathy toward the age-old problem of evil—a suffering that is being lived out but not consciously thought through.
Either way, the complacent conclusion that evil and suffering exist “just because” has no basis in the Christian tradition. For believers, nature is not a blind force of random chance or bad luck. Creation is very good, and suffering exists because of Eden gone wrong. To believe in evil as a basic part of nature or luck of the draw might be Gnostic, Stoic, or Taoist, but it’s not Christian.
Why, then, is the most common answer among Americans for suffering pragmatically atheist—that evil just “is what it is” and has no correlation to our belief in a good and powerful God?
Scripture is chock-full of stories where God’s people are bold enough to wrestle with him and ask the hard questions: Why are you allowing all this evil? How long, oh Lord? When will you come and set all this right?
Job of the Old Testament, Epicurus, David Hume, C. S. Lewis, and Mother Teresa—along with countless others throughout history—all wrestled with the problem of evil and suffering. And they did so in a way that forged a crucible for their faith, ultimately strengthening their belief in a God who is both strong and loving, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary.