In my own experience and in talking with other parents, questions from kids about the evil and suffering in our world are often the most difficult to answer. Some of these questions can leave us squirming to find the right words…and wondering if we just said something that is biblical at all! If you relate to that, you’re going to love today’s post.
Let me introduce you to Dr. Clay Jones, a Biola University apologetics professor who just had a book come out called Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions. I asked Dr. Jones if he would be willing to answer eight tough questions that kids often ask on this subject. He graciously agreed and provided his answers below.
Before you dig in, I just want to say that this is an excellent book. I had the honor of endorsing it, so I’ll share what I said: “It’s hard to imagine there could be a new much-needed book on the problem of evil when so much has already been written, but that’s what this is. Clay strikes a rare balance of theological depth and accessibility on this difficult subject, making it an ideal resource for anyone seeking to better understand how evil and suffering can co-exist with a perfectly good and loving God. He answers questions you’ve always had, questions you’re embarrassed to ask, and questions you didn’t think to ask but should have…all in an engaging style that makes you not want to put it down.”
So, if this is a subject you need to better understand (who doesn’t?), I highly recommend this book!
Many thanks to Dr. Jones for taking the time to answer the following questions.
8 Tough Questions Kids Ask About Evil and Suffering
1. The first chapter in your book is called, “Why do we suffer for Adam’s sin?” That’s a question many kids ask, including my own on multiple occasions. For many kids, it’s a question of fairness…”It’s not fair that Adam sinned and now we live with the consequences!” How should parents answer that (admittedly big) question?
Just about every time someone disobeys God, someone else gets hurt. If a child steals from another child, that child gets hurt. It’s not fair, but that’s the way sin works. It hurts people unfairly.
It’s the same way with all parents and children. Every parent in this world makes decisions every day that help or hurt their children. Sometimes parents cause accidents that hurt their children and even their children’s children. Sometimes parents make poor financial decisions that might cause their family to be poor and that might hurt their kids, their grandkids, and their great-grandkids. Sadly, children often suffer for their parents’ sins. In the same way we are all suffering because of the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve are our great-great-great…grandparents, and their decision affected everyone who has been born since. God told Adam and Eve to rule the world. But Satan told them God lied when he said eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would cause them to die. When they believed Satan over God, they sinned and that had consequences. Their rebellion against God separated them from God, and it is only by having proper relationship with God that one can live forever.
Adam and Eve disobeyed their heavenly Father because they didn’t believe His rules were best for them. Good parents make rules for their children that are for their children’s good. Children who disobey their parents’ honorable rules are doing just what Adam and Eve did, which caused so much suffering.
The things that happened because of Adam and Eve’s sin are horrible, but there’s a huge lesson: if you want your life to go well, read the Bible and do what it says. The Father makes rules because He loves us and disobeying Him will always hurt us.
2. A related question kids often ask is, “Why did God put the tree in the garden if He knew Adam and Eve would sin?” How would you respond?
God didn’t want to create androids (human-like robots) that would only do what He programmed them to do. Androids can be programmed to say “I love you,” but they can’t really love. The Father wanted people to be able to really love, so He gave Adam and Eve free will. Free will is the ability to obey or to disobey God (or parents).
Children have free will, which means they can choose to be kind or cruel to other children. They can choose to share or be selfish. Parents try to teach their children to be kind and unselfish, but children don’t always obey. When they don’t, they hurt others. Because children have free will, sooner or later they will wrongly hurt someone. When they see that they’ve hurt someone, they can choose to continue to be unloving or they can say they’re sorry and choose to change.
Children usually obey their parents when their parents are watching them. But parents know what their children are really like by how they act when their parents aren’t there and no one is making them do what’s right. Parents hope that when their children do wrong, they will learn from their mistakes and choose to do right in the future.
All good parents give their children increasing opportunities where the child can choose to do right or wrong. For example, there comes a time when parents allow their children to drive a car even though they know their children might drive in ways that might hurt themselves or others. As children grow older, they get to freely choose whether or not they are going to obey their parents and God.
That’s the way it was with Adam and Eve. God had the big picture of all people in mind when He created the earth and placed Adam and Eve on it. He wanted lots of people who freely chose to love Him to be with Him forever. But He also knew that people with free will would all eventually use it wrongly. Thankfully the Lord had a big plan that would rescue those who used their free will wrongly and wanted to change and use it rightly.
So He created Adam and Eve. God knew that sooner or later they would disobey Him. He gave them the opportunity to do that by giving them just one command and sometimes leaving them alone. When they disobeyed, He assured Eve that she would have a Child who would turn around the damage that Satan did on earth by deceiving her.
When there were more people on the earth, the Lord gave more commands that taught people how to love each other and Him. God knew that many people would live for themselves and disobey His commands. But He knew that others would learn the folly of disobeying Him. They would learn that His rules are for their best interest.
Sadly, Adam and Eve didn’t believe God that their disobedience would cause them to die. But it did. And the only kind of children they could have were children who had bodies like their own that would die—this is the bad news.
But, there is Good News. Although God knew that sooner or later Adam and Eve would disobey Him and bring on suffering and death to themselves and their children, God also planned to send His Child, Jesus, to pay the price for human sinfulness and make it possible for everyone to come back to Him through Jesus’ death on the cross. Now everyone who trusts Jesus will get eternal life and eternal life will make our suffering here seem tiny.
3. Perhaps the most common reason kids begin to ask questions about evil and suffering is that they experience the death of a friend or loved one. There are a few related questions that often arise. Let’s start with sudden, unexpected deaths, such as in a car accident. Kids will ask, “Why didn’t God prevent that from happening?” What would you tell them?
All people die. If people didn’t die, then those who choose to do really bad things, like torture other people, would hurt others forever. If the people they tortured didn’t die, they would suffer forever.
Initially, people lived very long lives—hundreds of years long. But the violence got so bad that God said He was going to shorten people’s lives on earth (Gen. 6:3). That did two things. First, it limited the amount of evil any one person could do. Second, it limited the amount of suffering any one person could endure.
So everyone dies. We will all die of murder, accident, or disease. It’s just a matter of when. Sometimes it’s when someone is young, and sometimes it’s when someone is old.
One reason God allows people to die from accidents is to teach other people to be responsible: to make cars safe and to drive safely, for instance. We don’t know how often God does intervene and prevent people from dying (Psa. 71:15). But other times God allows accidents so people will learn not to do unsafe things, like texting while driving.
4. Similarly, kids sometimes know someone who is ill and they pray fervently for healing, but the person dies. What do you say to the child who asks, “Why didn’t God answer my prayers?”
Everyone is going to die. There are no exceptions! That is a part of our suffering here on this earth and this helps us long for Heaven, our true home. Since God has appointed that everyone should die (Heb. 9:27), as a general rule, it isn’t God’s plan to keep everyone alive. Now, sometimes in response to prayer, the Lord may heal a person, but often the Lord has decided that it is that man’s or woman’s time to go. Remember also, that if people die knowing Jesus, they go to a much better place. As it says in Isaiah 57:1, “The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.” In other words, God often lets people die because He is doing them a favor by sparing them from more suffering in this life! This is also true for children. Those who die young will be better off than if they had lived a long time on this earth because Heaven is a better place to be. In heaven there will be no death or mourning (Rev. 21:4).
5. My daughter once saw a billboard for a Children’s Cancer Hospital and asked why God lets kids die. In other words, why doesn’t He at least let everyone live to a certain age?
Questions like why didn’t God prevent a particular child from being hurt or killed in an accident involve several different issues.
First, parents should ask their child whether God should ever let any child die in an accident. My experience is that everyone will reply No, God should never let any child, ever, die in an accident. Then ask how God would keep that from happening. In other words, how would God keep all children safe from accidents, at all times, unless God were to create a cartoon world? For example, Wile E. Coyote, while chasing the Road Runner, falls off cliffs, has giant boulders fall on him, is blown up by dynamite, and so on…but a few moments later Wile E. is fine. But that’s not a real world—that’s a cartoon world! In a real world natural laws must work in regular ways if our actions are going to mean anything at all.
Second, by allowing children to be injured or die, God is teaching parents and children that they aren’t safe from harm and so they need to be careful. If it was never ever in our experience that children were injured or killed, that would drastically change child raising. You could let your seven-year-old go free climbing, tease rattlesnakes, or play marbles in the freeway—they’d just bounce around a lot—because children would never get hurt. But if God is to teach us cause and effect, if God is going to teach us to be responsible, then He cannot allow us to live in a cartoon world.
Third, although no Scripture unequivocally assures us that children will be saved, there is Scripture which suggests that children will be saved. A majority of Christian theologians agree that children who die before the age of accountability (they differ on when that might be) will be saved. Children who die then end up in a better place even if their parents and friends miss them. But we will all be reunited in Heaven!
Finally, if, say, God didn’t let a child die until twelve years old, would we not question God’s fairness for letting a child die at thirteen, etc.? Is there really any age that wouldn’t upset us when one of our children died?
I cannot emphasize too much that Christian parents need to look to eternity, and begin to teach their kids to look to eternity, where, as it says in Revelation 21:4, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” That’s the Christian hope and we should not put our hope in this world.
6. Now let’s tackle some common questions about heaven and hell. First, if heaven is going to be so wonderful and perfect, why did God choose to create this world with evil and suffering first? Why not just create heaven instead?
If God is going to give us free will in heaven where we won’t sin, then God needed to first let us live in a world where we learn the horror of sin, and that’s exactly what we’re learning here. We are learning that sin is stupid. How many teenagers think their parents are unfair or unwise in the rules they set down? But most children learn, as they mature, that, at least on many points, their parents were right. All of us humans are learning here that sin is stupid and that prepares us to inherit God’s Kingdom where we can do what we want to do without sin. Of course there’s much more to say about this and in my book I give seven reasons why we will be able to have free will in Heaven but not sin. The major one is what I stated here: without learning the horror of rebellion against God here on earth, we could not have free will in heaven and not sin. This is where we learn that sin is stupid and that our Heavenly Father is right.
7. Even when parents explain that God is just and therefore there must be consequences for sin, many kids still think God must be “mean” for creating hell. How would you address that concern?
This is the hardest question of all and I devote an entire chapter to it in my book. God originally created hell for the angels who rebelled against him, including Satan. He didn’t create it for people. God created earth for people to rule. But when Satan tricked Eve into disobeying God, Satan became the ruler of the earth. People who decide they do not want God to rule over them can’t go to heaven where God rules. That would bring suffering to heaven. Instead, they go to be with Satan and the other rebellious angels.
In short, I agree with many, if not most Christians, that there is a sense in which the gates of hell are locked from the inside. In other words, those in Hell won’t want to be with God. I use the following illustration in my book:
After enduring five miscarriages, my wife and I took in foster children. These kids, prior to their living in our home, led police-blotter lives—they were abused, sexually molested, criminally neglected, and living in one ramshackle hotel or county group home after another. After a couple years in our home and much to our surprise, one girl ran away and returned to her former squalor. About a year later she called, sad because she knew, in her words, that she had ruined her childhood. My wife Jean E. asked her why she had run away. She replied, “Because you wouldn’t let me have a boyfriend.” She was 12! She had left because she didn’t want to live under our rules. We even gave her the opportunity to return but, again, she would rather live on the street, in poverty, without dental or medical care, than have to follow our rules.
In the same way, the occupants of hell will not want to live in God’s kingdom so God gives them what they want—a place of separation from Him.
8. Sometimes when parents tell kids that they can look forward to an eternity beyond evil and suffering, kids respond that heaven sounds boring or that they don’t even WANT to live forever. What would you tell them?
The only reason kids wouldn’t want to live forever is precisely because heaven sounds boring. What Satan has done to make Heaven look like a place no one would want to be, I kiddingly call Extreme Makeover: Metaphysical Edition. Heaven is portrayed as a bunch of angels sporting flightless wings, sitting on clouds, and strumming harps. No wonder that one college student fought back tears as she admitted to me that she was afraid she didn’t want to go to heaven. If heaven was like what is commonly portrayed by the media, I wouldn’t either! Who wants to be a cloud potato?
How heaven relates to our suffering here is so important that I have three chapters on it in my book and one of the chapters is dedicated to answering whether heaven will be boring.
Let me briefly correct the misconceptions.
- First, heaven isn’t all white; if anything, it is jewel toned (Rev. 4:3-6, 21:9-21).
- Second, we won’t have wings; we’ll have bodies like Jesus’ glorified body, which could enter locked rooms yet still be hugged and eat.
- Third, we won’t all be strangers as if God lobotomized us; we’ll know and enjoy each other (Mat. 25:8, Num. 31:1-2, Mat. 8:11).
- Fourth, heaven won’t be full of prudes; rather, heaven will be full of prostitutes like Rahab, murderers like Moses, adulterers like David—but they will all be repentant! Hell will be for the unrepentant murderers, Pharisees, and haters.
- Fifth, Heaven won’t just have angels; heaven will have exotic creatures. One example: “And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within” (Rev. 4:6-8).
- Sixth, we won’t just be singing; rather, our eternal occupation will be reigning with Christ over the Kingdom forever (Rev. 22:5). In other words, the Lord is putting us in charge.
- Seventh, rather than just staring at God forever, as is commonly portrayed, Scripture most often compares heaven to a party where we will eat and drink and enjoy the Father and each other forever and ever (Isa. 25:6, Mk. 14:25, Rev.19:9). What’s not to like?
Clay Jones (DMin) is an associate professor of Christian apologetics at Biola University and the chairman of the board for Ratio Christi, an international university apologetics ministry. Previously he hosted the nationally syndicated talk radio program Contend for Truth and served on the pastoral staff of two large churches. Clay and his wife, Jean E., live in Southern California.