The the slaughter of innocent children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School have fueled much heated discussion, especially about Evil. Where was God? Is He Himself evil? Could He not have done something to stop the killer or protect the children? So I will throw my hat in the ring with an excerpt from my book, Answering Evil, a chapter entitled “Can He Not…?”
The Biblical book of Daniel records a notorious incident involving a collision of wills between a malignant tyrant and three royal advisors. The king was Nebuchadnezzar, one of the most autocratic rulers of recorded history. His advisors were a trio of young, displaced Hebrews named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, more famously known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They defied the King’s threat to roast alive anyone who refused to worship his colossal golden image. Now they stood before him in judgment.
Infuriated by their boldness, King Nebuchadnezzar raged, “If you do not worship [the image I made], you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
Their reply was unyielding: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image you have set up.”[i] [Emphasis added]
The three young Hebrews held fast to a tremendous principle: God is able to deliver from any and all evil, misery and death—but even if He does not, they would still resist any intimidation to abandon their trust in Him.
Nebuchadnezzar’s fury exploded and he ordered their immediate execution. An appalling decree had been inflicted upon a displaced nation, and out of devotion to their God, three of its finest youth stood boldly against it. Yet the God to whom they entrusted their lives still allowed them to be unjustly condemned to a dreadful execution. Could He not save them? Did He not care?
Then something unexpected happened: though they were hurled alive into a blazing furnace, the Hebrews did not burn. But even more alarming, the astonished tyrant saw a fourth figure in the furnace, walking with them in the flames; someone human yet otherworldly, who looked “like a son of the gods.” It seems that although God was able to deliver them, He refused to do so, choosing instead to personally accompany the captives into their fiery ordeal.
Deliverance from evil and agony is certainly preferable to the unsettling alternative, but any divine rescue from earthly suffering is only a temporary thing. The one who is healed today will suffer a different affliction tomorrow; the one who has been raised from the dead will live only to die another day. But discovering that He stands with the afflicted in their ordeal reveals God’s tender lovingkindness and faithfulness toward us all. He is always right where He promised He would be; He is with us, especially in the furnace of life’s most searing moments. And like the three Hebrew youths, we can trust Him even as we are hurled into the flames, and when there, ever more so.
Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, discovered that in the Nazi death camps more people discovered and deepened their faith than lost it. He concluded that “A small and inadequate faith is like a small fire; it can be blown out by a small breeze. True faith, by contrast, is like a strong fire. When it is hit by a strong wind, it is fanned into an inextinguishable blaze.”[ii]
As he informed his stunned congregation of the discovery of his fatal liver cancer, Pastor Jim Boice of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church said, “The God who works miracles could have just as easily prevented this…In a fallen world, is God more glorified by preventing evil altogether or by shining in the midst of suffering? Which better demonstrates His compassion? He has told us that He has given the world over…we must expect evil to dominate until the Day of Satan’s immolation; until then, including during the millennium, people will still die. The one constant is the compassionate presence of Jesus Christ.”[iii]
Simone Weil concluded, “The irreducible character of suffering which makes it impossible for us not to have a horror of it at the moment when we are undergoing it, is destined to bring the will to a standstill, just as absurdity brings the intelligence to a standstill, and absence love, so that man, having come to the end of his human faculties, may stretch out his arms, stop, look up and wait.”[iv]
When we, too, are afflicted by evil and suffering, we must take care not to dismiss what we do know about God in the face of what we do not know. Os Guinness noted that in the agonies of a fallen world we may never know the why, but we can know and can trust the God whoknowswhy. At God’s behest Abraham came within seconds of sacrificing his own son as a burnt offering, and he did not know the reason why. But Abraham knew that he could trust the God who knew why. Like Abraham, in our own broken world, we also must not forget that God is sovereign, and that in the end all will be well.[v]
Why did such evil have to happen in the first place? It did not have to, but God warned us that it would. He also promised He would be there, closer than any man could ever be, holding perfect understanding and love. He wears the scars to prove it.
[i] Daniel 3:16b-18
[ii] Attributed to Viktor Frankl
[iii] Michael Horton, James Montgomery Boice: Servant of the Word; Modern Reformation, 9 no. 5 (September/October 2000): 10-1
[iv] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, London, Routledge, 1995, p. 102)
[v] Os Guinness, Riding the Storm. From a lecture presented at the C.S. Lewis Institute, August 2001