The bell rang, inviting the college students to empty into the hallway. It was my first semester at college. I dodged my fellow freshman to escape into the fresh September morning.
I had just finished my first morning class and I planned to spend my free hour eating a late breakfast. As I trekked across campus in search of food, I noticed an unusual amount of students crammed into the student center. They were staring at the TV. I was curious, so I wandered in. No one moved or spoke. Everyone seemed glued to the TV.
And there, on the screen, was the image that would change America. An image of two smoking towers. It was September 11, 2001.
Where were you fourteen years ago? We all remember. And as we remember, it conjures up questions. The same questions we asked fourteen years ago. Why? How could a good God allow such a tragedy? Didn’t God care about those 2,977 people?
Where was God on 9/11?
Where Was God?
These are the same questions people have been asking for hundreds of years. A young mother asks, “Where was God when my husband died?” The parents of a rape victim question whether God knows what’s going on. The man who gets fired two years from retirement doubts God’s goodness.
Christians have traditionally accepted that God is, among other things, the following attributes:
- God is all good.
- God is all powerful.
- God is all knowing.
If this is true, then it raises the age-old question, unde malum? Whence comes evil? Or as we more commonly ask it, Where is God when I’m hurting?!
Everyone from Cicero to David Hume to my next door neighbor has asked this question. If God is good, then he would want to remove evil from the world. And if God is all powerful, then he would be able to do it. And if God is all knowing, then he would know how.
So where was God on 9/11? And where is God when we experience profound pain?
Thanks for Playing (or Fallacious Theodicies)
People have proposed many answers to this question. Here are a few options that fall short of a truly biblical response.
Option #1: Evil is not real. “Evil is an illusion,” imagined Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church, “and it has no real basis. Evil is a false belief.” It makes no difference whether the pain is real or imaginary; it still hurts. But it is equally true that God shares our pain. When we hurt, he hurts with us (see Isa 63:9). “He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). And Jesus understands what pain feels like (Heb 4:15).
Option #2: Evil comes exclusively from free will. Some would say that evil results from man’s free, sinful choices. What this does not answer, however, is the question of secondary causes. What about when the free will choices of others affect me? And what about natural disasters? And what about the sovereignty of God?
Option #3: God is not all powerful. This is the position Rabbi Harold Kushner takes in his run-away bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981). He wrote, “Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it. God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it.” Then he makes this striking comment: “Even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do.” This leaves us with, as Hulk would put it, a “puny god.” Not to mention that it flies in the face of the Bible’s teaching on the sovereignty and omnipotence of God.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible clearly affirms that God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing. No doubt about it.
- God is all good. “You are good and do good” (Ps 119:68).
- God is all powerful. “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). In fact, God does whatever he wants in heaven and earth without giving an account to anyone (see Ps 115:3; Dan 4:35).
- God is all knowing. “His understanding is beyond measure” (Ps 147:5). He even knows everything before it happens (Ps 139:4; Isa 46:9).
At the same time, suffering is not God’s fault. When God created the world, it was perfect. The fact that there is evil in the world is a constant reminder that we live in a broken world. If I smash my iPhone with a hammer, it would be stupid for me to blame Apple. It’s not their fault I broke their product!
God holds man fully responsible for his actions. God does not incite anyone to sin (Jam 1:13-14).
So both are true: God is sovereign—and man is fully responsible for his actions. This is a classic antinomy, a big word that means it is an apparent contradiction. But the Bible says that both are true which leads us to believe in compatibilism, another big word that means both truths are mutually compatible.
God Shouts in Our Pain
Then, whence comes evil? Sometimes it is the result of our own sinful choices. Sometimes it is a reminder to repent (see Luke 13:1-5). And always it can bring us closer to God.
People argue that if God were good, then he would want to prevent all evil. Not necessarily. He may allow some evil for a greater good, just as parents provide discipline for their children so they can grow up to have a better life.
C. S. Lewis puts it beautifully: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
The Problem of Good
Augustine admitted that the problem of evil was a tough question. But he posed an equally challenging question—the problem of good. “If there is no God, why is there so much good?” Great question!
The real question is why good things happen to bad people? Because there are no good people. “No one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:12). But God loved us so much that he chose to punish Jesus in our place and to provide a pardon for anyone who would believe it (John 3:16). The gospel announces the good news that we can have a righteousness not our own and eternal life we do not deserve. Now that’s a mystery!
The Christian may not have an airtight answer for the existence of evil any more than anyone else does. But he does have something no one else has—and that is a God who promised to be with him through the trials that God ordains.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “As sure as God ever puts his children in the furnace, he will be in the furnace with them.”
9/11 may not just cause us to revisit the old mystery of the problem of evil, but it may also reopen old wounds. Where was God on 9/11? Is he still good? Is he still powerful?
Far from calling God’s character into question, the presence of evil in this world reminds us that God is on a mission to restore his broken world. And that he loves us enough to enter our pain and walk with us until he wipes every tear from our eyes (see Rev 7:17; 21:4).
 Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, 480.
 Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 42-43.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 91.
 Qtd. in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, 33. Emphasis added.
 Charles Spurgeon, Gleanings Among the Sheaves, 10.