The unimaginable atrocities of Sept. 11 brutally reminded us that evil remains a powerful and destructive force in the world. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington prompted millions to ask: Where was God?
If God, who made the world, is good, why has the world gone wrong? If He is loving and merciful, why does He allow such horrible events? If He made His whole creation good, why hasn't it stayed good? If He possesses absolute power and hates evil, why does He permit such evil things to happen?
We often ask such questions when a child runs into a street and is struck down, when a speeding, drunken driver takes the lives of an innocent family or when someone falls victim to random violence. The stunning amount of destruction and loss of life in the World Trade Center and Pentagon has focused even greater attention on such questions.
Most people with religious upbringings learned that the world came into existence by the creative act of a great and powerful divine being. But obviously a great many things have gone wrong in the world since that time.
So we ask ourselves: Where was God on Sept. 11? Why didn't He act to prevent such an evil? Doesn't He exercise control over everything that occurs? Is God powerless to prevent evil?
What would it take to eliminate tragedy?
The answer to those questions is inherent in another: Do we want God to totally control everything we do?
Think about it for a minute. Would you want someone else to take control of your life, to dictate everything you could or could not do, to determine everything you did in your every waking moment? Would you want that kind of domination over your life?
Where would you draw the line on what you would want God not to allow? Should God prevent anyone who drives too fast from speeding? Should He keep all of us from viewing television shows, movies and video games that could influence some to lust or commit acts of depravity and violence?
These forms of entertainment often lead to the misuse of our God—given sexuality, designed to bring us happy marriages and wonderful children. Such misguided programs degrade the character of those who produce and use them. Extramarital affairs often lead to the destruction of marriages and families. Many children from broken marriages grow up into hurt, angry, distrustful adults. Premarital sex often results in diseases, unwanted pregnancies and the aborting of tiny, innocent human lives.
When people break laws—do irresponsible things—they often hurt not only themselves but innocent people. At what point should God take control of people to stop them from doing such things? Before we criticize what God allows, we would be wise to examine and answer these crucial questions.
Understand that, for God to prevent every tragedy, He would have to exercise absolute control over every action of every human being on the face of the earth.
But, if He did, we would be nothing more than automatons—robots incapable of making decisions on our own. We would be deprived of freedom to make personal choices.
Nowhere in God's Word, the Bible, do we find evidence that He ever intended us to be mindless machines. On the contrary, the Scriptures reveal that God created us with freedom of choice, or free will.
We treasure this freedom so highly that much of Western culture is based on and passionately committed to protecting it. People regard it as one of the foundational rights of society. Yet we tend to blame God when our collective freedom to make choices and live our own way produces tragic consequences.
It all started in the garden
We can find many answers to our perplexing questions by reviewing what happened in the Garden of Eden. That's where and when humanity's problems began. Much that has happened in history can be traced back to the brief time our first human parents spent in that God—made paradise. Patterns of behavior began there that still affect men, women and children everywhere.
God created us for an awesome purpose, yet He made us spiritually incomplete. From the beginning He gave us a remarkably capable mind. But He did not instantaneously create character within us. To develop righteous character we must consciously choose good over evil.
This takes time, and God gives us a choice in how we learn the difference between right and wrong. We can respect God's wisdom and allow Him to teach us, or we can trust our own judgment and learn the hard way.
God created Adam and Eve, then placed them in the Garden of Eden. There He began to teach them the way of life that would bring peace and blessings—the way of life He wanted them to pass on to their children. He commanded them to obey His instruction.
Yet He did not force them to obey Him. It was their responsibility to choose whether they would trust Him and rely on His judgment and teachings or not. Satan, seeing in humanity's freedom of choice an opportunity to deceive, offered them a life based solely on self—determination and independence from God. Adam and Eve exercised their free will. They foolishly accepted Satan's offer. Their choice dramatically changed their lives and set the course of history for all their posterity.
Consequences of choices
All choices produce results. Bad choices can produce terrible consequences. The Scriptures tell us that "whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7). So, predictably, after Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan, they and their descendants began to reap a harvest of violence and suffering.
Though God created us with freedom of choice, He appeals to us to recognize that definitive knowledge of right and wrong is available only from Him. Notice how plainly the Scriptures explain the consequences of our choices:
"See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you ... But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear ... I announce to you today that you shall surely perish ... I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:15-19).
God wants us to make good choices. But He does not force us to do so. Nevertheless He commands us, "Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, till He comes and rains righteousness on you" (Hosea 10:12). If everyone would choose to sow righteousness, our world could reap the fruit of peace and security. This God has promised (Leviticus 26:3—12).
Most seldom take God and His Word into consideration in their choices. God allows human beings to make their own decisions and to be selfish, self-centered, greedy, angry, lustful and arrogant. He doesn't want people to be that way, but He permits it.
The problem with most people is that when they make bad choices they seldom realize that they are bad. They typically view them as being the best choices for them at the time—but they don't consider the long—term consequences. By repeatedly making bad choices, they bring pain and suffering into their lives and the lives of others. "... Those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same" (Job 4:8).
Because almost all of humanity has rejected God's counsel, most people continue to make poorly informed choices. Isaiah poignantly described humanity's typical path: "The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace. Therefore justice is far from us, nor does righteousness overtake us; we look for light, but there is darkness! For brightness, but we walk in blackness! We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes; we stumble at noonday as at twilight; we are as dead men in desolate places" (Isaiah 59:8-10).
God is allowing us to learn for ourselves that many of our choices are at best very unwise, that they can bring tremendous suffering. When we refuse to base our lives on God's revealed instructions, He lets us collectively suffer the consequences of our combined foolish choices. This is a primary reason that we live in a world filled with so much suffering.
Not God's world
We also need to understand that this is not God's world. The apostle Paul refers to it as "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4, emphasis added throughout).
The Scriptures speak of Satan the devil as a deceptive and powerfully evil spirit being who served God as a "covering cherub" (Ezekiel 28:16) before he rebelled. They explain that the devil offered Eve—and in turn Adam through her persuasion —an alternative path to the one that God had instructed them to follow.
Regrettably, they willingly accepted his offer. They chose to experiment with their own ways, independent of God's guidance. By succumbing to the devil's temptation, they submitted to his sway and influence. Adam and Eve set a pattern that mankind has followed ever since. Therefore Satan's evil ways became, in the words of Paul, "the course of this world" that most people unwittingly follow (Ephesians 2:2).
Mankind as a whole since that time has gone down the same path. In the same passage Paul calls Satan the devil the "prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience." He is so influential, even apparently "broadcasting" wrong moods and attitudes to receptive human minds, that he has deceived humanity into believing that ruthless competition and strife are better than the cooperative way God first began teaching Adam and Eve. Therefore Satan has become "the god of this age [who] has blinded [those] who do not believe" (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Christ acknowledged that Satan is the present ruler of this world, or age (John 14:30; 16:11). He also said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Again, for the present, this is not God's world.
Nor is God the author of the pain we see around us. Other factors cause humanity's suffering—human decisions, sin and the devil's success in influencing and manipulating our self—centered choices. (For more information be sure to request our free booklets Is There Really a Devil?)
God is not trying to save the entire world now (Matthew 13:10—15). Instead, he is working out His plan according to His own time frame. He will deal with Satan at the proper time (Revelation 20:1—3)—but in the meantime He allows the devil to hold sway over the earth (1 John 5:19; Revelation 12:9).
Now back to our primary question: Why does God permit evil on the atrocious scale of Sept. 11? Primarily, it is so mankind can learn one essential lesson.
All of humanity must eventually learn, beyond a shadow of doubt, that God's way of life is the only way that will really work. God prefers that we learn this lesson the easy way, by trusting His judgment and choosing to follow His instructions. This is the way He offered us—all of mankind—at the beginning of our existence.
Jesus Christ concisely sums up this way of life: "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37—39; quoting Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
Ironically, all three of the world's great monotheistic religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—claim to accept these two divine commandments. But humanity as a whole has seldom followed them.
Mankind, being naturally hostile toward God and His law (Romans 8:7), has chosen the more difficult way. Therefore God has given us thousands of years to write the hard lesson of experience under the disastrous sway of Satan. It is his influence, not God's, that has pitted man against man and nation against nation.
Christ foretold where our collective determination to do things our own way would eventually lead. In His famous prophecy of Matthew 24 He predicted that in the end time "nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (verse 7). The Greek word here translated "nation" is ethnos, from which we derive the English word ethnic. Jesus prophesied a time when many of the world's peoples and cultures would rise against each other —exactly as we have seen throughout history and especially in recent years.
Coupled with this, said Jesus, "kingdom [will rise] against kingdom"—countries and nations would go to war against each other.
The outcome that He foretold is chilling. The time immediately before His return will be "a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again." Conditions will be so dangerous, so terrifying, that, "if that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive ..." (verses 21-22, Revised English Bible).
This will be the culminating result of our collective choice to go our own way, to try to solve our problems apart from following God's way of love: We will find ourselves on the brink of annihilation.
Wresting control from Satan
"... When you see these things happening," Christ said, "know that the kingdom of God is near" (Luke 21:31). His message is clear: Because we are incapable of forging enduring solutions to our conflicts, He will have to intervene to save us from ourselves.
Our collective human experiences—including the terrible tragedies of this life—are like a torrential river sweeping humanity toward one inescapable conclusion: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death"—of pain and destruction (Proverbs 16:25). When mankind finally learns this crucial lesson, it will then turn to the instruction book of its Maker and be guided to the better way. In the end our all—knowing, all—powerful God will bring good out of all the bad.
When Jesus returns, Satan's influence over humanity will cease. Then it will be said, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out" (John 12:31). Christ will forcibly step in and take control of the governments of the world (Revelation 11:15)imposing punishment on those who refuse to obey Him (Zechariah 14:16—19).
Through His Spirit, God will begin granting people the power to control their human nature (Ezekiel 36:25—27). But even this will not be by actually making anyone do anything. People will still have a choice. Yet the choice will be much clearer for Christ will remove the spiritual blindness of living under Satan's rule. He will teach people how to avoid wrong, selfish choices that bring misery and destruction (Isaiah 11:9; 30:21; Micah 4:2—3). Through their voluntarily yielding to Him, God will change their nature from within, writing His law in their minds and hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).
Must we, in the meantime, feel helpless before the power of Satan, who, according to John 8:42—44, is the father of lies and all other evil? Not at all, providing we will wholeheartedly examine our ways and individually turn to God in humility and obedience. The Scriptures tell us that, if we "submit to God" and "resist the devil," he will "flee from you" (James 4:7).
Through Isaiah God tells us how to begin this process: "Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:6—7). To learn more, request our free booklet Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion. We do not have to remain trapped under Satan's sway. Indeed, God has shown us the way out. Once we are pardoned, God's help through His Spirit is available to us to transform our lives in this life now.
They will live again
"All that may be true," some will say, "but it doesn't help the loved ones I have lost." Though at first glance that appears to be true, God has revealed that all is not lost for them, either. Those who had their lives, with their hopes and dreams, taken from them through death are destined to live again. He will resurrect them to live again in a world where neither evil nor Satan, the father of evil, will any longer dominate human affairs.
"Do not marvel at this," Jesus said, "for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28—29, New American Standard Bible). (For more details about the hopeful side of this "resurrection of judgment," be sure to request our booklet What Happens After Death? It thoroughly explains, from God's Word, this wonderful resurrection that so few correctly understand.)
In time, all wrongs will be made right and all hard questions will be answered. God has promised, "I will bring the blind by a way they did not know ... I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight. These things I will do for them, and not forsake them" (Isaiah 42:16).
God's goal is to create from human beings His own righteous family. But He reveals in His Word that mankind must first learn some hard lessons.
As we have already explained, there is an easy way to learn and a hard way. God prefers that we learn our lessons the easy way—by simply trusting Him and believing what He reveals in His Word without having to experience the consequences of a lifetime of questionable choices. But our resistance to God's instruction means that we learn most of these lessons the hard way.
God wants us to learn and practice righteous behavior. But He is even more concerned that we build righteous character the kind of character that, with His help, will help us to control what we think and what motivates us.
This is where the real control over good and evil must be established—in the individual character of each of us. Only by giving us free will could God enable us to choose between right and wrong, between good and evil, so that He could establish His own character in our minds. His ultimate intent is to develop godly character in all of humanity so that we will base all of our choices on the same unselfish love that motivates Him.
The Scriptures show that God will succeed in accomplishing this beyond anything we could imagine—that when all is said and done only a small minority will have rejected His ways. When God has brought His plan to completion, humanity will be transformed into His own children and enjoy fullness of life and peace in a manner we can't humanly realize is possible.
Yes, God allows human beings to choose who influences them and to make many, many unwise personal choices. Satan the devil still dominates the thinking of most of humanity.
But, from it all, humanity is learning an incredibly important lesson that few at this time can appreciate. The net effect of the choices human beings make without God's complete involvement in their lives can produce, at best, only a mixture of good and evil (Genesis 2:17).
Thankfully, God has set a time when He will send Jesus back to earth to make this lesson clear to human beings. This will include even those who have gone to their graves without this precious understanding (Titus 2:11—14; 2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 37:11—14; Matthew 12:41—42). The good news is that the overwhelming majority will ultimately listen and change their ways of thinking and living.
God will bring this about. Then all will be able to enjoy a peace and safety—as well as freedom—that is presently impossible. GN