A student once asked me, “If God is good and powerful, then why evil?”
Armed with philosophical arguments, I presented the “free will defense” and proposed “skeptical theism.” But the student seemed unimpressed. Though helpful, I discovered that the philosophical approaches to the problem of pain (or evil) leave much to be desired. Why? Because when people wrestle with pain, they wrestle with the personal problem of pain. Philosophical answers fail to touch personal pain.
So, how do we help students navigate the personal problem of pain? Here are four ways.
1. Help Them Turn to Scripture for the Proper Perspective on Pain
If God and evil were so at odds, I doubt the Bible would talk about evil. It would be embarrassing to mention evil if the Bible could not deal with it. Yet, some form of evil appears on almost every page. This indicates that perhaps Scripture deals with evil after all (John 16:33; Romans 5:1–5; James 1:2–3). As spiritual leaders, we must help students turn from their often-distorted perspective of evil to Scripture’s perspective of evil. It is there they will learn several truths about the pain they experience.
First, Scripture affirms God cannot be the cause of evil (James 1:13–18). Second, Scripture asserts that evil came into the world because of sin (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12). Third, Scripture assures us God has not left us alone in our pain, so we must turn to Him.
2. Help Them Turn to God’s Presence in Pain
When we experience evil, our first instinct is to cry, “Where are you, God?” It seems God has left us for dead in our pain. But this is unbiblical thinking, for even in the valley of the shadow of death, God is present and ready to strengthen and comfort us (Psalm 23:4; 46:1; 2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
But there is something even more beautiful. God is not just with us in the pain – He entered it. God’s presence in pain is not like the presence of a friend who has no understanding of our suffering. Jesus, who died an excruciating death, understands pain like no other because He both experienced personal pain to an unfathomable degree and carried our pain (Isaiah 53:3–4). He knows all suffering and pain intimately because He bore it on the cross. Many students today errantly believe that no one understands their suffering. But Jesus deeply knows their pain and remains with them, ready to help them endure and overcome by His power (Matthew 28:20; John 16:33).
3. Help Them Turn to God’s Promise in Pain
“But I thought God was powerful. Can’t He eliminate evil?”
My response? He will. Those who struggle with the irreconcilability of God and evil forget that He will destroy evil in the end. Many focus so much on the present that they forget about our certain future. They forget that Jesus’s resurrection points to our resurrection and the defeat of death itself (1 Corinthians 15:20–28). In the end, the omnipotent God will wipe away every tear, destroy death, and terminate pain once and for all (Revelation 21:4). The ending will be so great that the pain of our lives will be a distant memory that fades in the light of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
4. Help Them Understand That God Has a Purpose for Their Pain
But the “light of glory” seems awfully far away. Why do we experience evil right now? I don’t know.
In the book of Job, we discover that God never tells Job why he suffered. Instead, God reminds Job of His good and righteous character, declaring, “I am sovereign over all things. So, trust Me” (Job 38–41). At the end of the book, even though Job never learned why he suffered, Job responds to the Lord, saying, “I know that You can do all things and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted… Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2–3).
Like Job, we must be careful of placing ourselves in the proud position that God owes us an explanation. Perhaps the “why” questions surrounding the problem of pain are examples of uttering what we do not understand. Though it may be difficult to hear, students must realize that they may never know exactly why they suffer. Instead of asking “why” questions, they must return to God’s character and trust that He is so good that He can use their suffering to mold them into the image of His Son (Romans 8:28–29).
Jonathan Lough is the assistant professor of theology at Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, NY. He teaches Systematic Theology and Apologetics along with other classes as needed. Jon attended the Bible Institute for two years, served on a Word of Life traveling music team for one year, earned his bachelor’s degree at Cedarville University, and then graduated with his Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2022. Jon serves alongside his amazing wife, Lauren, whom he married in 2020.