[A sermon preached by Ron Hutchison on WRKY radio in Murray, Kentucky September 11, 2005]

[The introductory remarks have been omitted]

As we announced last week, our lesson today is entitled, "Why do bad things happen?"   I'm presenting this lesson because of the tragedy that occurred last week in the wake of the hurricane that hit the gulf coast.  I'm sure that some folks will look at the suffering and terrible events that have taken place as an affirmation that there is no God.  "Surely, if there was a God (some people reason), He would not allow such suffering and death to take place on such a great scale." 

Many through the ages have abandoned their faith in God because of the presence of evil, pain, and suffering in their lives or in the lives of those close to them, or even in the lives of those they don't know. In 1851, Charles Darwin's life set him on the road to unbelief when his oldest daughter, Annie, fell ill. On April 23 of that year, she died at the tender age of ten. Darwin was devastated. Although his wife was a devout believer in God and Christianity, with Annie's death, Darwin no longer believed in God. Samuel Clemens (otherwise known as Mark Twain) became embittered against God after the death, in 1896, of his favorite daughter, Suzy. In the mid-1960s, a devoutly religious young man from Chattanooga, Tennessee was a role model for all of his classmates. He led a prayer group, and planned to become a foreign missionary -- until his sister died of leukemia and his father committed suicide. The boy's belief in God collapsed, and, as a result he became one of America's most outspoken unbelievers, humanists, and pro-abortion advocates. That boy's name was Ted Turner, founder of CNN, the Turner Broadcasting System, and other well-known media outlets.

But, of course, it is not just the famous who abandon their belief in God because of evil, pain, and suffering in their lives. Questions arise every time bad things happen: "If there is a God, why did He allow me to become sick?" or "How could a benevolent God allow my daughter to be killed in an accident?" These and hundreds of other questions like them have been asked for thousands of years. How do those who believe in God reconcile the existence of suffering with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God? Is unbelief in God justified?

Even though we cannot explain in specific detail every instance of human suffering, there are several reasons why people experience evil, pain and suffering. One of the foremost reasons is rooted in the fact that God is love as John teaches in 1 John 4:8. It is because of His love that He allows freedom of choice. God did not create human beings to be robots to serve Him without any kind of free moral agency on our part. He created a world in which we have choices.  In Genesis 2:16-17 He told Adam and Eve, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."  There is no way that Adam and Eve could be human beings and be made in God's image without this choice between good and evil.  Joshua, in chapter  24 and verse 15  shows the choice that man has when he said, "And if it seems evil to you to serve Yahweh, choose for youselves this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh."  Without this choice between good and evil, man would not be man.   God does not control His creation as a puppeteer controls a puppet. Rather, as an expression of His love, He has granted mankind free will, and that free will enables human beings to make our own choices.

We frequently bring suffering upon ourselves because we make the wrong decisions. The apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:15,  "But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people's matters."  When people suffer the consequences of their own wrong choices, they have no one to blame but themselves. If a person decides to become a murderer, he very likely will suffer the unpleasant consequences of having made a terribly wrong choice. He may spend the rest of his life in prison, or perhaps be put to death as a result of his choice. If a person decides to steal something, he will have to suffer the consequences of that choice. If a person decides to be involved in evil things or be a busy body in other people's business, he will suffer the consequences of his choices. Our suffering often results from a misuse or abuse of our personal freedom.

Sometimes we also suffer because of the personal wrong choices of others. If God allows one person freedom of choice, then, to be consistent in His love for the world (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8), He must allow everyone that same freedom. God is no respecter of persons as the Bible teaches in Acts 10:34 and Romans 2:11. In 2 Samuel  11, we read where Uriah the Hittite suffered because of King Davidís sins. Uriah ultimately lost his life because of Davidís attempt to hide the sinful decision he had made to commit adultery with Bathsheba. Today, families may be affected adversely because a father is sent to prison on a drunk driving charge, or because a mother uses drugs. In each case, a single individual is the cause of an entire family's suffering. If a man chooses to smoke cigarettes and then eventually dies of cancer or heart disease, his family suffers because of his bad decision. But  God is not to blame.

Another reason for the suffering that we sometimes endure (and one that is closely related to the first two) has to do with the personal wrong choices of generations who lived before. For example, why are so many people starving to death in various Third World countries today? While this is a difficult question with several possible answers, one partial answer has to do with the fact that these people's ancestors, perhaps thousands of years ago, taught that it was wrong to eat certain animals because they might be eating one of their ancestors. The false doctrine of reincarnation has deprived millions throughout the world of their health. Is God to blame when people will not eat the food He has provide -- food that could provide them with proper nourishment? Again, the answer is No. There can be no doubt that many of the decisions of former generations have caused much pain and suffering for those living in the world today.

But we also need to Consider this: We frequently hear (and often offer ourselves) complaints about reaping evil from the wrong choices of generations long since gone, but we rarely hear expressions of gratitude for the many blessings that have been passed down to us as a result of the hard work and sacrifices of those same people. We live longer and healthier lives because of numerous medical discoveries, and we have technological conveniences that make our daily lives more enjoyable. The truth of the matter is that we eat of vineyards we did not plant; we drink of cisterns we did not dig. We owe much to many people who have lived before us. The fact is, while we often suffer because of the sins of former generations, we also benefit from their labors. If we truly are free, it must be possible for us to reap the benefits, as well as suffer the consequences, of our own decisions and the decisions of others.

People also suffer because of violations of natural law. We are fortunate that God created a world ruled by specific laws. Those laws were implemented for our own good, but if the laws are violated, then we will suffer the consequences. If a person steps off the roof of a five-story building, gravity will pull him to the pavement below. If a someone steps out in front of a moving freight train, since two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, the train will strike that person and likely kill him. Why? Because he has (knowingly or unknowingly) violated the natural order of this world. The natural laws that God created allow us to produce fire. But the same laws that enable us to cook our food also allow us to burn down entire forests. Laws that make it possible to have things constructive to human life also introduce the possibility that things destructive to human life may occur. How can it be otherwise? A moving car is matter in motion, and takes us where we want to go. But if someone steps in front of that car, the same natural laws that operated to our benefit will similarly operate to our hurt. The same laws that govern gravity, matter in motion, or similar things also govern weather patterns, water movement, and other geological and meteorological conditions. All of nature is regulated by these laws -- not just the parts that we find convenient. If God suspended natural laws every time one of His people was in a dangerous or life-threatening situation, chaos would rule the universe, and would argue more against God's existence than for it!

Everyone (believer and unbeliever alike) must obey the natural laws that God has established, or else suffer the consequences. In Luke 13:4-5 Jesus speaks of  "those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them," And then He asked,  "do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no; but, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  Had these men perished because of their sins? No, they were no worse sinners than the other people in Jerusalem. They died because a natural law was in force. If a tower falls on someone, they more than likely will die.  That's what happened to these 18 men. That is true because of God's natural laws.  Fortunately, natural laws work continually so that we can understand and benefit from them. If a tower falls and we can get away, we run.  We run because we know the consequences if the tower falls on us. We are not left to sort out some kind of haphazard system that works one day but not the next.  We ought to be so grateful that God has placed natural law into effect and that we can depend on that natural law to always be the same.  But when we violate that natural law, we will suffer the consequences of that violation.

Throughout history, man has experienced great tragedies. For example, in A.D. 526, an earthquake hit the country now known as Turkey, and left over 250,000 dead in its aftermath. A similar earthquake in China in 1556 killed more than 830,000 people. On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck the south-eastern coast of the United States, killing over 25 people and causing an estimated $10 billion worth of damage. One month later (on October 17th), an earthquake registering 7.1 on the Richter scale struck the San Francisco Bay area in California. At least 62 people were killed, and damage estimates were placed at well over $1 billion. And now, another hurricane has struck New Orleans and surrounding areas and we still don't know how much damage and how many lives have been lost. 

It is rare, it seems, for a single generation in a given location to be spared from some kind of natural disaster. Without warning, tornadoes sweep down from the afternoon sky and destroy in a moment's what took decades or centuries to build. Floods cover "old home places" and remove forever the memories that were kept there. In a matter of seconds, earthquakes alter once-familiar landscapes. Hurricanes come from the ocean, demolish practically everything in their paths, and then dissipate as if they had never existed. Each time, human beings suffer. And each time there are those who ask "Why?" Why does the Earth experience natural disasters in the first place, and why are such disasters not incompatible with a loving God?

In Genesis 1:31, at the end of His creation,  the Bible says, "Then God saw everything that He had made, and, indeed, it was very good." The Hebrew carries the meaning of that which is both complete and perfect. When God created the world, everything was complete and perfect.  Rivers were running, fish were swimming, and birds were flying. Pestilence, disease, and human death were unknown. Man existed in a perfect paradise of happiness and beauty where he shared such an intimate and blissful relationship with his Creator that God came to the Garden of Eden "in the cool of the day" to commune with its human inhabitants (Genesis 3:8). Not only that, but  Genesis 3:22 records that man had continual access to the tree of life that stood in the garden, the fruit of which would allow him to live forever. The peacefulness and tranquility of the first days of  humankind were not to prevail, however. In Genesis 3 Moses, through inspiration, discussed the breaking of that close relationship between man and God, the entrance of sin into the world, and the curses that resulted. When Adam and Eve rebelled against their Creator, evil entered the world. Moses, in Genesis 3:17, tells that God said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it: Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life."  The Earth was "cursed."  After Adam and Eve sinned,  things apparently declined rapidly. Just three chapters later, Moses wrote of the continual wickedness of man in Genesis 6:5-7 in these words: "Then Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And Yahweh was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So Yahweh said, 'I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them"  Man, because of his wickedness brought his destruction upon himself.

Genesis  6-8 records the world-wide destruction resulting from the Great Flood sent by God as His instrument of judgment. The text indicates that the waters that caused the Flood originated from two distinct sources: "the fountains of the great deep"; and "the windows of heaven" (Genesis 7:11). Water fell for forty days and nights according to Genesis 7:12,17, and eventually covered "all the high hills under the whole heaven" according to Genesis 7:19. We may only speculate about the changes that the world-wide Flood caused on the Earth. We know that local floods can cause tremendous damage in very brief periods of time. Imagine, then, the damage that the waters of the world-wide Flood must have caused as they covered every mountain to a height of fifteen cubits (as Genesis 7:20 teaches; which was approximately 22Ĺ feet). One writer has suggested, and I quote:

"The destructive power of flood-waters is evident from what flood waters in recent years have done. They moved blocks of granite weighing 350 tons more than a hundred yards. Boulders weighing 75 to 210 tons have been moved by flood waters only 15 to 20 feet deep.... What vast devastation must have been created when all those forces of the earth worked together; rain gushing down from the canopy above the firmament, earthquakes shaking the earth, many volcanoes erupting and exploding at one time, continents shifting, mountains lifting up, tornados, hurricanes and wild windstorms raging, gigantic tidal waves with crosscurrents and whirlpools raising havoc.... Truly, the Flood was the greatest and most violent catastrophe in the history of the world, with total destruction of all forms of life and of the entire surface of the earth" (Sippert, 1989, pp. 78-79).

What were conditions like on the Earth prior to the Great Flood? Many scientific and biblical scholars have suggested that conditions were fundamentally different than those we see today, and that the Earth did not experience the many natural disasters that it presently experiences. In their book entitled, The Genesis Flood, John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris stated. And I quote:

"This is inferred from the fact that the 'breaking-up of the fountains of the great deep' (Genesis 7:11), which implies this sort of activity, was one of the immediate causes of the Deluge; therefore it must have been restrained previously.... Thus the Biblical record implies that the age between the fall of man and the resultant Deluge was one of comparative quiescence geologically. The waters both above and below the firmament were in large measure restrained, temperatures were equably warm, there were no heavy rains nor winds and probably no earthquakes nor volcanic emissions" (1961, pp. 242,243).

It is not unreasonable to suggest, knowing the changes caused by local floods, that the world-wide Flood of Genesis 6-8 not only radically altered the face of the Earth, but at the same time produced circumstances that are responsible for the natural disasters experienced since that time. Psalm 104:6-10 seems to imply that the mountains were higher and the valleys were lower after the flood. Approximately 71.9% of the Earth's surface remained covered with water after the flood. Temperature changes occurred, producing seasonal variations unlike any before. No doubt other factors were involved as well.

What causes natural disasters on the Earth today? One cause, of course, is the vastly different geological and meteorological phenomena now present on our planet. Tall mountains and deep valleys can contribute to localized extremes in weather. The drastically changed components of the Earth's crust (such as fault lines) cause earthquakes. Great bodies of water, and large global climatic variations, spawn hurricanes and tropical storms. In his second epistle, the apostle Peter referred to "the world that then existed" and its destruction by the Flood (2 Peter 3:6). That world no longer exists. Today, we live in the "heavens and the earth which are now" in the apostle Peter's words (2 Peter 3:7).  A world that is evidently quite different than it was before the flood of Noah's day.

But, some will ask, why can't God intervene to prevent disasters if they are going to cause great death and destruction? But what would happen if He did?  Would we not have a world that would follow a certain set of rules one time, and then would follow a completely different set of rules at another time?  There would be nothing we could depend on.  We could not know or even imagine what course of action to take to accomplish a certain goal because we would not know which rules apply. 

How could a livable, dependable world - governed by appropriate and understandable laws - be created and operated, other than the way ours presently is? And how, in such a world, could disasters be prevented, while maintaining both natural law and human freedom? Taken at face value, the wickedness of mankind in Noah's day, which brought the Flood upon the earth, is ultimately responsible for the changes that now produce various natural disasters. Who should we blame for the suffering that results  from hurricanes and tornadoes and such like? Is it fair to accuse God, when in the beginning He created man's home free from such things (Genesis 1:31)? In all honesty, the answer has to be no. Sin robbed us of our original garden paradise, and sin was responsible for the world-wide flood (Genesis 3:24; 6:7).  Thus, sin in the days of Noah is responsible for the weather patterns we have today and hence for the natural disasters that occur like the recent hurricane. These are not "acts of God" as our insurance polices describe them.  They are the consequences of our ancestors sin in the days of Noah.

Instead of blaming God when tragedies such as natural disasters strike, we need to turn to Him for strength and let tragedies, of whatever nature, remind us that this world never was intended to be our final home.  We need to be like those people that Hebrews 11:13-16 talks about.  "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they came out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better,  that is, a heavenly country: Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." Friends, we need to receive the promises.  We need to be assured of them and we need to embrace them.  We need to realize that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth and that there is a heavenly country, in a spiritual realm, away from this physical universe that we are to look for.  A better country than the one in which we live.  We need to realize that our time on this earth is temporary.  James wrote in James 4:14, "Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away." Our lives will end at some point.  And James show the brevity of life on this earth when he compares it to the steam that arises from boiling water.  It is here just for a very short moment and then is gone.  That's how our lives on this earth are.  We are here just for a moment, and then we are gone. 

With God's help, we can be victorious over whatever comes our way. Paul wrote in Romans 8:35-39 "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, 'For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.'  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,  nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  There are no natural or man-made disasters that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, unless we allow it to do so.  We have the choice as to whether we will let these  kinds of things separate us from God.  The Psalmist said in Psalm 46:1-3 "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling."  No matter what we must face, we must seek refuge and strength in God.  He is a very present help in trouble.  There is no need to fear, though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters roar and be stirred up or the mountains shake and explode.  We can be assured that God knows and cares about us and we can find refuge in Him.

 In the end, the most important question is not "Why do bad things happen?," but rather "How can I understand what has happened, and how am I going to react to it?" With Peter, the faithful Christian can echo the sentiment that God, "who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:10-11).

Remember, too, that there are times when suffering is beneficial. We have pain to warn us of possible serious illnesses.  Think of the person who has chest pain as he begins to have a heart attack, or the person who has pain in his side at the onset of acute appendicitis. Is it not true that pain often sends us to the doctor for prevention or cure? Is it not true also that at times suffering helps us develop the traits that human beings treasure the most? Bravery, heroism, unselfish love, self-sacrifice? All of these flourish in less-than-perfect environments.  We have seen this in the lives of the people who experienced the hurricane directly, as well as all those who have stepped up to help them.

Finally, no one can suggest - justifiably - that the suffering we so often experience is contrary to the existence or goodness of God, in light of the series of events that transpired at Calvary almost two thousand years ago. The fact that even Jesus as the Son of God was subjected to evil, pain, and suffering proves that God loves and cares for His creation. The Bible says in Hebrews 5:8, "Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which he suffered." God is not the unloving, angry, vengeful God depicted by atheism and infidelity. Rather, "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life" (Romans 5:10). God could have abandoned us to our own sinful devices but instead, "...God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," as Paul taught in Romans 5:8.

The unbeliever, for reasons known only to himself, either is unable, or unwilling, to concede the love of God. That - not the evil, pain, or suffering that he currently endures - is the greatest tragedy of his life.

[Some concluding remarks have been omitted]

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