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God is Peace…Right?

I attended a meeting of the Secular Student Alliance last night on the campus of the University of Nevada. Actually, it was more of a discussion group than a meeting, and I’ve taken part in many such discussions over the past 6-9 months or so. This group, which consists primarily of atheists and agnostics, has debated and discussed a wide range of issues, from morality to free-will to the demographics of the atheistic community.
Last night’s discussion centered around the question, “Is God peace?” Or, “Is God love?” This question was inspired, I believe, by a bumper sticker someone had seen recently.
Christians, of course, will answer in the affirmative. God is called the “God of peace” in Romans 15:33, and we’re told in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.”
However, from the perspective of an atheist or skeptic, how can God be characterized by peace and love in light of the following observations:
  • Pain and suffering in the world
  • Birth defects and intellectual disabilities
  • The seemingly unchecked advancement of evil and cruelty
  • Atrocities in the Bible (i.e. genocide)
  • The concept of eternal damnation (which seems cruel and unjust)
All of these objections were raised in last night’s discussion. I must admit that, being the only representative of the Christian faith, it was a bit difficult to answer the flurry of questions. In this article, I’d like to address some of these objections in greater detail. First, I’ll explain the various reasons for suffering in the world today. Then, I’ll address the issue of eternal damnation.
Reasons for Suffering
Some questions are straightforward, and the answer is simple. Other questions are very deep and require a much more detailed response. The question of suffering falls into the latter category. There is no one statement that will address all aspects of human suffering. Biblically speaking, there are many causes of suffering in the world.
Ultimately, most suffering is the result of sin, whether directly or indirectly.
Suffering is the direct result of sin in the following cases:
  • Sin often has physical and/or emotional consequences. The sin of fornication may result in venereal diseases or an unwanted pregnancy. Drinking may result in drunk driving accidents, fatalities, extra-marital affairs and damaged relationships (Proverbs 23:29-35). The Bible – especially the book of Proverbs – warns of the consequences of gossiping, losing your temper, falling prey to lust and adultery, laziness, greed, etc. The suffering isn’t always physical; it is often emotional. There are long term emotional consequences of sin: shame, guilt, bitterness, and so on. We often suffer because we’ve chosen to reject God’s will, or at least we fail to live by His will. “And the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24).
  • Suffering can also occur when God punishes us individuallybecause of our sin. Hebrews 12:3-7 makes it clear that God chastens His children when they sin. “If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten” (vs. 7).
  • We also find numerous examples in the Bible where God punished an entire nation or region because of its sinfulness. He rained fire and brimstone down on Sodom, Gomorrah and the other cities of the plain in Genesis 19. He often used one nation to punish another nation (Isaiah 10). The book of Revelation lays out God’s judgments against the Roman empire because of its godlessness and persecution of Christians. And believe it or not, the example of genocide (as recorded in the book of Joshua) was actually an expression of God’s justice. The ‘conquering of Canaan’ served a dual-purpose: it allowed the Jews to obtain the land which God had promised to Abraham, while also bringing God’s judgment against the Amorites and other nations which inhabited Canaan (Genesis 15:16).
Suffering can also be the indirect result of sin. Consider these points:
  • A person’s choice to sin not only impacts them, but others as well. No one lives in a bubble. If I cheat on my wife, I’m going to suffer for it. But my wife and six children will suffer for it as well, not to mention the many others that I would disappoint and let down. On a larger scale, a leader of a country may cause untold suffering by pursuing a course of cruelty (i.e. Hitler). In all such cases, God isn’t the cause of the suffering; the suffering is, instead, the result of man’s choice to make ungodly choices.
  • Then there are the natural disasters, the birth defects and diseases. In each of these cases, the suffering does not appear to be tied to anyone’s sin in particular. What about the tsunami that kills a quarter of a million people? What about the innocent baby that is born with with cerebral palsy, severe autism or a mental illness such as schizophrenia? In response, I will quote Romans 8:18-21…

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

The “creation” here is the natural world. When mankind sinned, the natural world was “subjected to futility” and “corruption.” Whether God adjusted the system, stepped back from the system or allowed Satan to have more sway over the system I cannot say for sure. But what this passage tells me is that man’s sin has corrupted the natural world. If you view sin as a cancer and the natural world as a body, the more that the cancer goes untreated, the more corrupt and infected the earth will become.

In all of this, God allows us to deal with the direct and indirect consequences of sin.

First of all, this is an essential component of free-will. For every cause, there is an effect. If there are no consequences for bad choices, free-will is a game, an illusion.

Secondly, suffering has benefits. “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Even the atheist should agree with this in theory. You’ve heard the expression, “No pain, no gain.” Suffering has a way of building our character.

Third, suffering shows us our need for God. Whether the suffering is the direct result of our sin or the indirect result of others’ sin, it reveals our vulnerability and mortality, which, in turn, points us to a God who offers a path to a better life. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

So we can’t blame God when we’re suffering. We choose to sin. Those around us choose to sin. Sin has consequences. We live in a fallen world, and in this fallen world, our suffering ought to illuminate, if anything, our desperate need for God.

Finally, there are three forms of suffering that cannot be attributed directly or indirectly to sin:

  • Suffering also exists because of Satan’s influence. The story of Job illustrates this. While God permitted Satan to inflict suffering upon Job, Satan is the one who did it…and he did it because he wanted Job to curse God and abandon his faith. Even today we’re told to “be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom He may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
  • God may allow suffering because He has a greater purpose in mind. In John 9:1-5, we are introduced to a man who had been blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asking Him, “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.'” There may be times where God allows suffering or even creates adverse circumstances, not because He’s punishing anyone, but because He has a greater purpose in mind. In this story, the man was born blind so that one day, Jesus could heal him and bring glory to God as a result.
  • Sometimes, there is no particular reason behind a person’s suffering. In other words, God isn’t behind it. We’re told in Ecclesiastes 9:11 that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.” Jesus affirms this in Matthew 5:45 when He says that “your Father in heaven…makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Before I move on to my final point about eternal damnation, I want to clarify two things about suffering in the world today. These points are critical.

  1. Rather than look for the reason for each instance of suffering, we ought to react to suffering by recognizing our own mortality and thus our need for God. When asked about a tragedy that had occurred at the hand of Pilate, Jesus responded, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered these things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3).
  2. The question, “Is God peace?” can be answered with a resounding ‘Yes!’ Likewise, we can all affirm without hesitation that He is love. But this is an oversimplication of His character. While this point really merits much deeper analysis and explanation, suffice it to say that (1) God is also a God of justice (Psalm 89:14), and that (2) In His infinite love, He allows suffering to exist because He respects our free-will and wants us to respond by turning to Him. By way of comparison, I deeply love my children. But I will still discipline them when they misbehave (thus robbing them momentarily of peace) and allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions in hopes that they will learn and grow from it. So there is no contradiction.
What About Eternal Damnation?
One of the most common and effective arguments against the love of God is the concept of eternal damnation in a fiery hell. In the discussion last night on campus, the issue of hell was raised on multiple occasions. In the minds of many, it seems unfair and unjust for God to send seemingly good people to hell where they will burn and suffer for eternity without any hope of escape. Some believe that hell in and of itself is proof-positive that the God of the Bible is unloving. Others will admit that hell makes sense, but that eternal hell is unreasonable and unfair.
Listen, I get it. From a human standpoint, it does seem harsh.
My answer is this: if God created this world and all life in it – if I am the product of His creative power – then who am I to argue with Him about the nature or duration of hell? My faith isn’t predicated on the reality of hell. I don’t begin with hell. That’s not my starting point. Through my studies and meditations, I have concluded that there is a God and that the Bible is His inspired word. Therefore, if the Bible teaches an eternal hell, that’s what I’m going to believe.
The fact is, God has made Himself known to all of us (Romans 1:20). The gospel is for all (Matthew 28:18-20; John 3:16). We each have a lifetime to seek God’s truth, embrace His will, and grow in His love and grace. We can debate the nature of hell or the cause of suffering, but none of this negates the reality of God, our need for Him, or the urgency of salvation.
Conclusion
I fully understand how an unbeliever can conclude that the God of the Bible is NOT love or peace. From a Christian perspective, it can be very difficult to give a direct, clear answer for every instance of suffering in the world. I’m not God. I don’t understand or claim to understand why everything in the universe happens. All I can do is examine the Scriptures and relate what the Scriptures teach about suffering in the world. That has been my attempt in this article.

If you’re an atheist or skeptic, I don’t expect this article to totally convince you of anything. After all, you don’t accept my premise that the Bible is God’s inspired word. But hopefully you can have deeper insight into the mind of a Christian and how it is that we reconcile these things.

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Debate at UNR

Debate at UNRSeptember 23rd, 2014
"Evolution or Creationism: which has more scientific evidence?" This is the proposition of a debate that I'll be participating in at the University of Nevada. I'll be defending creationism.

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