Tough Questions: Can We Trust the Bible?

When I was a senior in high school, an adult I highly respected said something devastating to me: “Someday, you’re going to realize how the Bible was put together, and that it can’t possibly be the Word of God.  You’re going to realize how deceived you’ve been.”  I wasn’t a new Christian at that time.  But I had recently made a decision that Jesus wasn’t just the Savior of my soul, He was Lord of my life.  I didn’t just want to go to Heaven when I died; I wanted to live for Him.  In my youthful idealism, I scoffed at her words and thought, “We’ll see about that.”  Over the three-plus decades since then, I have heard and seen lots of arguments that reinforce what she said.  Was she right after all?  This is no minor question.  As evangelical believers, we say that the Bible is our source for knowing what is true and what isn’t.  When contemporary culture changes its views on a matter, we stay with what the Bible says, even if it makes us unpopular.  If a gifted preacher says something that doesn’t square with Scripture, we reject his teachings.  Ultimately, what we know about God, morality, and truth is not determined by what we hear on the news, or what our church tells us, or even what sounds right in our own eyes; it is determined by this book.  But what if we’re wrong?  What if we’re staking our belief system on a book that is not worthy of our trust?

This is really two questions: One, should we really base our lives on words written thousands of years ago, a book that depicts miraculous events unlike anything we’ve seen, especially since we know there are many other supposedly holy books that have been written in human history?  We’ll explore that question next week in our Tough Question: Why Should we Believe the Bible?  The second question, and the one we’ll consider today, is this: How do we know the Bible we have today is authentic?  That’s what my adult friend was really questioning all those years ago.  She had heard that the Bible was corrupted over the years by different people adding their own perspectives, so we don’t even know what the original authors actually wrote down.  It’s sort of like the telephone game.  Remember that when we were kids?  My most memorable instance of the telephone game came when I was a young adult in college, and we played the game as part of a training session at my job.  One of my co-workers was an Indian student named Haroon.  Our boss whispered something innocuous in the ear of the person at the front of the line, like, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  By the time it reached the end of the line, that simple statement had morphed into, “Haroon goes ‘va-room’ in the bedroom.”  We died laughing, and Haroon turned purple.  But it stands to reason that the same thing happened to the words of the Bible.  As I got older, I was surprised to learn that we don’t have an actual copy of any of the original manuscripts of Scripture.  I just assumed that, somewhere in a museum was the first Bible.  But it wasn’t so.  The books of the Bible were hand-copied for centuries, until the invention of the printing press 1500 years after Jesus.  Surely mistakes were made, right?

And besides that, there was another reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible.  These books weren’t the only ones written about Jesus and Christian doctrine in the early days of the church.  By some estimates, as many as 3000 books existed.  Who decided on the 27 we consider Scripture today?  Why wasn’t the Gospel of Thomas included?  Or the Epistle of Barnabas, or the Apocalypse of Peter, for instance?  A common belief is that the bishops of the Church, some four hundred years after Jesus, chose books that fit a narrative they wanted to promote, and banned the rest.  In the blockbuster best-selling novel, The Davinci Code, a character explains that Jesus’s followers saw Him as a prophet, but otherwise a mere man.  But the Roman emperor Constantine had Him declared divine so that his power would be unchallengeable.  He published the biblical books that emphasized Jesus’ divine nature and banned the ones that showed Him as more human.  Yes, that was a work of fiction, but it parroted a common conspiracy theory.

So let’s look at both of those reasons to doubt the Bible’s trustworthiness.

Do our current Bibles contain the words of the original authors?  The analogy of the telephone game would seem to make that unlikely.  But that actually isn’t a good analogy at all.  In the telephone game, a person in the line hears a whispered message—only once!—and has to pass it along with another whisper.  But the books of the Bible were hand-copied, not whispered.  Scribes in the ancient world took their work very seriously.  Not only that, but there were multiple streams, not just one line of transmission.  To make the analogy more accurate, imagine there had been sixteen different lines of people passing along the message, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  The first person would write the message down and give it to the next person in line.  He would then write it on another piece of paper, and pass that along to the third guy.  If one person in the line wasn’t sure what the message said, he could ask the person to re-send, or even check it against the other lines.  Mistakes are much harder to make in that scenario.  That is more like how the Bible was transmitted.

Is it still possible that mistakes were made?  Absolutely…and they were!  That’s why there’s an entire field of study known as textual criticism.  So imagine a translator is working through a manuscript of Luke 11:2 that has just been found.  It says, Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  He notices that the other Greek manuscripts he has read slightly differently.  They say, Father, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come.  So which is the right one?  His textual critical training tells him that the more accurate manuscript is likely to be older, and shorter.  So he looks at his new manuscript, which is newer and longer, and assumes that the scribe must have mixed up Luke 11:2 with Matthew 6:9-10, which is the start of the Lord’s Prayer.  But just in case, in his translation he puts a little footnote so that the reader is aware that some manuscripts read a little differently.  You can probably see it in your English translation. There are dozens of those…the work of textual critics who devote their lives to making sure the Bibles we have are completely accurate.  If you decide to carefully read all of those footnotes, what you will find is that not a single major doctrine of our faith is in question.  They are all minor quibbles about wording.

I said a little earlier that the telephone game would work better if you had sixteen different lines of transmission, not one, so they could be checked against one another.  So how many different manuscripts of the Bible do we have?  Just to limit things, let’s consider the New Testament.  We currently possess over 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts.  There are also another 20,000 ancient copies in other languages such as Latin or Syrian.  And there are over a million quotations from the New Testament in the writings of early Church leaders.  That’s a lot of streams of transmission, and plenty of opportunity for scholars to be certain of what the original message said.  By comparison, other ancient documents that we study in our history classes have between 100 and 200 ancient manuscripts, yet virtually no one questions their authenticity. In other words, we can be absolutely certain the words of our modern Bibles are the words of their original authors.

So let’s look at the other issue.  How were these books chosen to be in the Bible? As I mentioned, conspiracy theorists point to political decisions made by church councils in the Fourth Century.  But for the real answer, we have to go much further back.  The first and second generation of Christians had a very different form of worship from us.  They would gather together in homes on Sunday, the first day of the week, probably in the evening when everyone was off work.  They would share a meal, sing some songs, and someone would read a text from the Old Testament—the only Bible they had—and teach about what the Scripture said or share some prophetic thoughts from the Holy Spirit.  If there happened to be an apostle in the area, they would set everything else aside and let him speak instead.  An apostle, by the way, was someone who had known Jesus personally and been commissioned by Him to be His representative.  Some of these apostles starting writing letters to churches when they couldn’t be there in person.  A trusted friend would bring the letter to the church, and it would be read aloud to the entire congregation on the next Sunday.  We know that the people believed these were more than letters—they were the inspired words of God through those apostles. See 2 Peter 3:16, And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.  I used to laugh at that passage, imaging blue-collar Peter struggling to understand the educated, erudite Paul.  Then I noticed: Peter was calling Paul’s letters Scripture!

People in those churches would copy the letters and share them with other churches.  That’s how the Scriptures first were circulated.  Over time, churches would gather all the letters and Gospels into a single volume or scroll.  It is absolutely true that lots of other people were writing letters to churches and stories about Jesus in those days.  Some of them were even written in the name of an apostle.  Church leaders would compare notes to see if what they had was true or not.  As best we can tell from reading their letters to one another, they used four criteria to determine what was true Scripture and what wasn’t:

One: Scripture comes from an apostle.  Luke and Mark weren’t apostles, but the early church believed they got their sources from eyewitnesses.  Mark was said to have interviewed Peter for his Gospel.

Two: Scripture is confirmed by God’s power.  Reading the letter or Gospel should produce life change in the reader if it is truly the word of God.

Three: Scripture is true.  In one of the stories of Jesus written in those times, Jesus as a boy acts like a spoiled wizard.  He makes clay birds, then brings them to life. He strikes another little boy dead for bumping into him, and when the parents complain, he turns them blind.  The early church rejected these stories, because they weren’t consistent with what the Bible said about Jesus.

Four: Scripture is accepted by God’s people.  Several years ago, books were written claiming that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered Scripture.  But the Gospel of Thomas was rejected by the people two thousand years ago, because it taught an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism.

It is true that Constantine convened several Church councils in the fourth century AD, and at those councils, bishops discussed what would be considered official church doctrine. This occurred because there were heretical movements cropping up, and Constantine wanted to keep this from disturbing the peace of his kingdom.  And yes, at one of these conferences, the Council of Carthage in 397, a vote was taken to officially decide on the canon of Scripture.  But the true decision was made in most churches centuries before that.

Christians and others sometimes ask me about certain books that Catholics have in their Bibles, that we and other Protestants don’t.  These 14 books are commonly known as the Apocrypha.  Here’s the story: The last of the books of our current Old Testament were completed four hundred years before the birth of Christ. But when the Old Testament was translated into Greek—a translation known as the Septuagint—the rabbis included fourteen extra books that had not been in the Hebrew Bible.  Centuries later, when Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation were finally translating the Bible into the languages people actually spoke—such as German, English, French, etc—they put these fourteen books into a special section in between the two testaments, or left them out entirely.  Here’s the important point: The Reformers didn’t consider these books heresy.  They said they were fine to read, but didn’t rise to the level of Scripture.  These books do not contain anything that disagrees with Christian doctrine.

I think back on that day when my adult friend told me that someday I would discover the truth about the Bible.  She was right, but not in the way she thought. The more I have learned about how God’s Word came to us, the more amazed I am at His incredible love for us.  It took the work of thousands of scribes, the courage of martyrs, and most of all, the wisdom of a God who wants us to know Him, to bring us this book we hold in our hands. And the more I study it, the more I grow into the person God made me to be…and the more convinced I am that this is the true Word of God.

What About People Who Don’t Know Jesus?

I can remember as a very small child wondering about people who never even hear the name of Jesus.  It didn’t seem fair that some little boy on the other side of the world who didn’t have the good fortune to be born in a Christian home would go to Hell, while I went to Heaven.  Much later, when I was working at UH one summer as an orientation guide, one of my co-workers was venting to us about one of her Christian friends.  She explained that she herself had been raised a Christian, but was starting to have doubts about what she really believed.  It all came to a head when she was talking to this Christian friend about who goes to Heaven.  Somehow, they started talking about Ghandi, and whether he was in Heaven now.  The friend said no, because he was a Hindu and never accepted Christ as his Savior.  My co-worker was furious about this.  “If you’re telling me that Christianity teaches that one of the greatest, most courageous people who ever lived isn’t in Heaven because he was of the wrong religion, then that’s not a religion I want to be a part of anymore.”  I must confess to you that I sat there mute, not knowing what to say or how to answer her.  I was awfully glad when someone changed the subject.

So what would’ve been the right answer?  This is one of the most important questions of all.  It’s something we all want to know.  Missiologists estimate that as much as 1/3 of humanity hasn’t even heard the name of Jesus.  At least 4 billion people don’t identify themselves as Christians.  On a national level, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has decreased by 11 percent in this past generation.  The fastest growing religious group in America today are those who claim no religious affiliation.  But for most of us, this is a more personal issue than all of that.  I want you to think about the people who mean the most to you.  Look at their pictures in your wallet, purse or phone, or envision them in your mind.  There’s probably at least one of those people who you are concerned about today.  You know they are headed in the wrong direction.  Ultimately, you’re not sure what would happen to them if their life ended today.  It’s okay to admit it…the billions of lost people bother you, but you are most concerned with that one person; that son, that granddaughter, that sister, that dad, that friend.  What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus?  For that matter, what about people who have done some outwardly religious stuff, but their present life is headed in the wrong direction?  What does the Bible say?  Would a loving God really send people to Hell?

Some people try to solve this problem by saying that Hell is a ridiculous, obsolete concept.  Who still believes in a Day of Judgment and a literal Hell?  Well, Jesus did, for one.  He spoke about it 15 times in the Gospels.  The most common image He used to describe it was Gehenna, a real place in Jesus’ time.  It was a valley just outside Jerusalem where the garbage, including the bodies of dead animals and human criminals, were burned in a fire that never went out.  That, Jesus said, was what Hell was like.  Scholars debate whether the images of fire are intended to be literal or figurative (I lean on the figurative side), but the point is clear: Hell is real, and it is a terrible place, far from God and anything good.

I have to admit to you, this bothers me.  A part of me would love to agree with those who say there’s no Hell, that God lets all of His children into Heaven.  But the idea of Hell and God’s judgment didn’t seem to bother the Jews in the time the Bible was being written.  I think that’s because of the oppression that was so common in their daily lives.  They knew that a God who truly loved them would not let the awful evils of this world go unpunished.  Maybe doubting God’s judgment is a peculiar luxury of the prosperous.  For instance, I doubt that Christians whose churches are being bombed in other countries have much trouble believing in the reality of Hell.  I doubt that the men and women who have been sexually violated by clergymen in their childhood feel squeamish about the idea of God’s judgment.  When we get right down to it, we feel the same way:  Do you believe the 9-11 terrorists went to a place of paradise when they died?  What would that say about God if they did?  There’s a great line in a British mystery novel of a several years ago.  A woman is mocking religion and says, “I don’t go in for all this emphasis on sin, suffering and judgment. If I had a god I’d like Him to be intelligent, cheerful and amusing.”  Her friend, who is Jewish, replies, “I doubt whether you’d find him much of a comfort when they herded you into the gas chambers. You might prefer a god of vengeance.”

Others solve this problem by saying, “Obviously, the bad people go to Hell, but good people go to Heaven.”  Or they rely on the dominant view of this age: “All religions lead to the same place, as long as you’re true to your beliefs and tolerant to others.”  Again, these would be attractive solutions, but Jesus clearly didn’t believe that way.  In John 3, we read about Jesus encountering a man named Nicodemus.  This man was a religious leader among the Jews, which meant he was exceptionally devoted to His religion (which was, let’s remember, the same religion Jesus was raised in and practiced).  Everything we read about Him indicates he was also a sincerely good man.  He tried to defend Jesus when the other religious leaders were determined to kill him (Jn. 7).  Later, after the crucifixion, he personally helped prepare the body of our Lord for His burial (Jn. 19).  Both of these actions showed incredible courage, integrity and compassion.  But Jesus told this good, devout man, “Unless you’re born again, you can’t see the Kingdom of God.”  It’s not about goodness or religious devotion at all.  If it were, then Ghandi would definitely get in ahead of me.  But the person we are cannot stand in the presence of God.  Our sin keeps us out.  Jesus would later say in John 14:6, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  In Acts 4:12, Peter, standing before the same Sanhedrin that conspired to kill Jesus, said, there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  I haven’t even started on Paul’s writings in Romans and Ephesians.  If people can get to Heaven by being good or by being devoted to their religion, Jesus and those who followed Him certainly didn’t seem to know it.

So what did Jesus believe about the fate of unbelievers?  Luke 13:1-5 sheds some light on the question.  There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Some people come to Jesus, asking His opinion about a current event.  The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate—known for his cruel anti-Semitism—had ordered some Galileans executed while they were sacrificing at the temple.  This would have been big news, and perhaps they just wanted to know what the young Rabbi had to say about it.  But notice the words “at that time.”  Luke wants us to know that this event was brought up right after Jesus foretold the return of the Son of Man and the Day of Judgment (see Luke 12).  I think these people were saying, “Well, I guess those people were getting some of that Judgment you were talking about, right?  After all, God wouldn’t have let that happen to them if they hadn’t been pretty bad sinners.”  In essence, they were getting some of the heat off of themselves by speculating on the state of some recently deceased people.  But Jesus will have none of it.  His response is, “Don’t worry about the state of those poor Galileans.  Don’t worry about the 18 people who were crushed by that tower that fell the other day, either.  It’s not your job to decide who the bigger sinner is.  You better focus on getting yourself right with God.  God will handle the rest.”

Obviously, the ultimate point of this is that we had all better make sure we’re right with God before we face our own death.  As we’ve already said, that’s not a matter of being really, really good, or really, really religious.  It’s a free gift Jesus bought for us all at the cross.  His death takes the heat for our sins, if we’ll accept it.  But what Jesus says here also goes back to our question for the day: How do we know about whether or not someone else is truly saved?  Jesus’ answer is consistent with the rest of what Scripture says—and doesn’t say.  Three points:

  1. It’s not our job to decide anyone else’s eternal fate. I cannot tell you how many times I have had conversations with another Christian where we discussed some version of the question, “So, do you think so-and-so is saved?” Sometimes it would be a certain celebrity, or an acquaintance, or someone we read about in the news.  Sometimes it was a denominational question: “That church believes some stuff we don’t.  Can they really be saved?”  But now I truly believe each of those conversations was a waste of time.  It’s not our job to determine those things, and the one whose job it is doesn’t need our help.  I don’t know any Scripture where we find Jesus, the apostles or the prophets asking such questions.

Nor do we find, anywhere in Scripture that I know of, a concrete list of criteria that we can use to determine whether someone is going to Heaven or not.  We see characteristics that should be in our lives if we’re following Jesus, and beliefs that we should hold onto, but these are always presented as things we  should aspire to in our own lives, not tools we use to judge others.  Just to make our point, let’s play that little parlor game I spoke of earlier: is he saved or not?  What would you say about a president who was personally courageous, who knew Scripture and quoted it often, but never made any public commitment to Christ and was never a member of any church?  Saved or not?  What about a famous clergyman who held many beliefs which would get him run out of a typical Baptist Sunday school class?  Saved or not saved?  What about a man who was a political and religious leader, who wrote religious literature that has been read by millions, but who secretly got the wife of a colleague pregnant, then had the man killed to cover up his crime?  Saved or not saved?  Well, I don’t know if Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther, and King David are in Heaven or not, but I wouldn’t bet against them.  It is not our job to determine anyone’s eternal fate.

Some of our more fiery brethren might say, “But we’re called to preach judgment on the lost! That’s the only way to get people saved…scare ‘em out of Hell.”  I don’t see anyone in Scripture doing that, either.  When judgment is preached, by the prophets, Jesus or the apostles, it’s almost always directed toward the religious people, not the unreligious.  Jesus had the harshest words for the self-righteous Pharisees and the affluent fat-cat Sadducees, because they should’ve known better.  But we have no record of Jesus ever accusing a Roman centurion of being a fascist pawn of an idolatrous, sexually immoral nation…and He had plenty of opportunity to do so.  In the same way, Paul was not afraid to confront hypocrites and false teachers within the Church.  But when he had a chance to speak to the pagan philosophers at Athens, he didn’t say, “All you idol-worshipping boy-lovers are gonna burn in Hell if you don’t repent!”  Instead, he reasoned with them calmly and persuasively, trying his best to prove that Christ was the risen Lord.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t speak about sin, judgment, and Hell when we talk to unbelievers.  But the example of Jesus and Paul shows us that we’re supposed to use the method that’s most likely to produce life change.

  1. We can trust God with the souls of others. I have done a lot of studying the Scripture on this issue, and one thing that I find consistently astonishing is that there is so little information about whether this person or that person went to Heaven or not. For example, what about the great men and women of the Old Testament?  They lived long before Jesus, so they certainly couldn’t accept Him as Lord. Are they shut out of Heaven?  Hebrews 11 and 12 name several of these heroes and clearly indicates they are in Heaven, but what about the rest?  And how did God get them in without them ever knowing Jesus personally?  I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to that question.  The Old Testament almost never mentions the intermediate state. There’s plenty of information about the Day of the Lord, and other passages that are foretelling the New Earth, but when it comes to what happened to those people when they died, it’s as if God says, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve got it covered.”

We face a similar dilemma when we think about small children who die.  Pastors will point to the fact that Jesus said you have to be like a little child to enter Heaven, but did He mean 12, 8, 5 or 5 months?  We don’t know.  I’ve heard many people say there’s an “age of accountability” before which God doesn’t judge us.  But try finding that in the Bible (hint: it’s not there).  So here’s what we’re left with: We know God loves little children.  We also know God is fair.  With what we know of God, we know He wouldn’t shut out of Heaven little children who never really had a chance to know Him.  We know He’ll do the right thing, and so Christians who’ve lost children, either in the womb or in their childhood, look forward to seeing them someday, and rightly so.  Now consider this:  God’s love and fairness are true for all people, not just children.  That doesn’t mean everyone goes to Heaven.  But it does mean we can trust Him to do the right thing.  Ezekiel 18:32 says, For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.  Peter 3:9 says, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  He backed up His words at the cross.  At the cross, God said, “I won’t force you to accept my love, but if you choose to go to Hell, it will be over my dead body.”  Don’t you think a God who loves every person that much will do the fair thing?

  1. Our job is to bring as many people to Jesus as possible. In spite of what we’ve said up to now, God’s attitude is not, “Don’t worry about the eternal fate of anyone else. Just make sure you’re getting in.”  True, Jesus didn’t tell us how to determine whether or not someone else was going to Heaven.  But He did leave us with a mission: Go into the all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.  I like the answer Jim Denison gave when someone asked him about people who never hear the Gospel: “The Bible doesn’t equip us to solve that problem with our theology, but we are called to solve it with our witness.”  He then points out an astonishing fact—and I haven’t checked his math, but I’m going to trust him on this.  He says that if every Christian in the world brought just one person to Christ per year, and that person led another person to Christ per year, and the process continued, the entire world would be saved in 34 years.    

Here’s what it comes down to.  Think back to those loved ones in your life who are headed in the wrong direction.  What if there was someone in their life who earned your loved one’s respect by living an authentically, courageously Christian life, who showed intentional love to them, prayed for them, and shared their testimony of faith in Christ.  If that person could convince your loved one to turn their life around and start following Jesus, how grateful would you be?  Is there any amount of money you could give this person to express your gratitude?

Everyone of us knows someone, a friend, neighbor or co-worker, who’s headed in the wrong direction.  Most of us know several “someones.”  Each of those people is somebody’s loved one…somebody’s mom, little boy, granddaughter, brother, spouse.  Someone, somewhere is hoping and praying that God will send a special person to help him or her turn their life around.  You might say, “Well, how do I know if they’re saved or not?”  You might say, “I can’t save anybody.  I’m just an ordinary person.”  It doesn’t matter.  If we make sure everyone we know knows that we love Jesus and knows we love them, through both words and an authentic, compassionate lifestyle, God will take care of the rest.  And as we are used by God to turn people’s lives around, can you imagine the gratitude on the part of their Heavenly Father, who loves them more than life itself, who actually CAN repay us for what we’ve done for His special child?  That is why we are here.

Tough Questions: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

A couple of years ago, the actor Stephen Fry appeared on an interview show in England.  He was asked the same question all celebrities get asked on this particular show: If there is a God, and you were standing before Him, what would you say to Him?  Fry’s answer took the host by surprise. “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about?  How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.  Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”  We could easily dismiss that as the inflammatory words of an atheist, which Fry is, except that many of us have similar questions, even if we don’t use such disrespectful language.  I can remember in 2012, when elementary school children were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut just before Christmas, a devout friend said to me, “I’m having trouble reconciling this with what I believe about God.  He could have stopped that, right?  He could have sent a cop to that school to intercept that guy.  Why didn’t He?”  That’s the question that has bedeviled theologians, philosophers, people of faith and people who want to believe since the beginning of time.  Some call it the problem of pain.  The logic says that if God is all good and all powerful, then He should be able to create a good world.  But since there is so much evil in this world, it must mean God isn’t good, He’s not powerful, or He’s simply not there.

Some people deal with the problem of pain on a much more personal level.  I know people, including some in our church, who have been hit with a series of devastating blows in a short period of time.  You lose your job.  Just when you’ve recovered from that shock, you get sick and have to be hospitalized.  Of course, there’s no insurance, so how will you dig out of that hole?  Then as soon as you get home, your mom dies.  At the funeral, your brother tells you that his wife is leaving him and taking the kids with her.  Meanwhile, you look across the street at your irreligious neighbor, and he seems to be doing just fine, living a blissful, happy existence.  Why?  There’s a quote in Bruce Almighty, which tackles some weighty material for a Jim Carrey film: “God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I’m the ant.  He could fix my problems in five minutes, but He’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.”

That question even comes up in the Bible.  Psalm 44:23-24 is just one of many places, Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?  Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?  Many godly people have wrestled with this problem for their entire lives.  My favorite author, Philip Yancey, has written several books about this topic alone.  The one I appreciate the most, and would recommend to anyone who wants more than a 30 minute sermon on the topic, is Where Is God When It Hurts?  I know I won’t be able to answer all your questions today.  But I do want to show what the Scripture says.  Specifically, I want to show how God in His Word contradicts three commonly held beliefs about suffering and faith.  And then I want to talk about what God intends to do about the pain in the world.

False idea #1: Evil is God’s fault.  If a family is killed in a car accident, did God push that car across the median?  If I find out next week that I have cancer, did God put the tumors into my body?  That’s what many people believe, including many religious folks.  They will often say in times of tragedy, “It’s God’s will,” words that don’t really bring much comfort to those who are suffering.  What does the Bible say?  It says God became a man named Jesus, who walked among us.  When He saw our suffering, did He shrug it off as the irrelevant struggles of pitiful creatures, the way you and I care nothing for the deaths of mosquitoes?  Did He walk around apologizing for messing things up so badly in creation?  Neither.  John 11 tells the story of Jesus going to the village of Bethany, where one of His closest friends, Lazarus, has just died.  Vv. 33-35 record what happened when Jesus got to the tomb and met Lazarus’s sister and other mourners: When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was angry in His spirit and deeply moved.  “Where have you put him?” He asked.  “Lord,” they told Him, “come and see.”  Jesus wept.

Verse 35 is well known as the shortest verse in the Bible, but few people consider how remarkable it is that Jesus wept over the tomb of a friend. Many versions of the Bible have the word “troubled” in v. 33 instead of the word “angry,” but Greek scholars tell us that the word used is a very strong word indicating rage.  Why was Jesus angry?  Because this isn’t the world He created.  Genesis 1 says the world God made was very good.  Genesis 3 says that when human sin entered the world, death and all other evil came with it. Based on the way Jesus acted that day and throughout His life, the Bible is telling us that God is not oblivious to human pain.  He doesn’t cause evil to occur.  He hates it even more than we do.

False idea #2: I am qualified to judge what it is reasonable for God to allow.  Still, the Bible records times when God intervened and stopped evil from winning.  We call those events miracles.  It makes sense; if God is strong enough to create a world, He can also do miracles whenever He chooses.  So maybe God doesn’t cause evil, but He certainly allows it.  Every time He chooses not to do a miracle, He is allowing evil to win.  I don’t understand this.  I’ve prayed for loved ones to be healed, and they died anyway.  I’ve prayed for couples to reconcile, and they divorced nonetheless.  I prayed for Hurricane Harvey to miss us completely, but that sure didn’t work out.  The Bible’s answer to my confusion is, “If you knew what I know, you’d answer those prayers in exactly the way I did.”  The story of Joseph is a classic example.  He was sold into slavery by his own brothers at 17, then accused by his owner’s wife of a crime he didn’t commit, then forgotten in prison for years.  I’m sure he wondered why God didn’t answer His prayers for rescue, for justice.  Then he is called upon to interpret the dream of Pharaoh, Egypt’s King, and realizes this is a message from God foretelling a world-wide famine.  Impressed, Pharaoh releases Joseph from prison and puts him in charge of preparing the nation for this crisis.  Seven years later, when the famine hits, Egypt has plenty of food because of Joseph’s wise management. Then one day, his own brothers come to him, begging to buy grain.  He recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him.  Ultimately, he forgives them, and the entire family moves to Egypt, where they live happily ever after.  But years later, when their father dies, the brothers all assume Joseph will have them killed for selling him into slavery all those years ago.  Genesis 50:20 shows us his response: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  Joseph is not saying God caused the brothers to do evil.  He’s saying God allowed them to commit this evil act.  He refused to intervene because He had a bigger plan.  If Joseph had lived a long, happy life at home in Canaan with his brothers, he and they would have all starved to death in the famine.  As it was, God allowed this evil so that Joseph could be in position to advise Pharaoh and save millions of people, including his own family, from starvation.

Tim Keller tells the story of a friend of his who was a drug dealer in his youth.  Then he was shot in the face during a deal gone wrong.  He lost most of his sight, and his recovery involved many painful surgeries.  In the aftermath, he gave his life to Jesus.  Today, he looks back on the person he was then, with his selfishness and cruelty to others, and how God has changed him.  Now he has numerous friends, peace and joy.  He doesn’t see how that all could have happened without the shooting.  “It was a terrible price to pay,” he said, “But it was worth it.”  Any parent knows that sometimes parenting involves allowing pain into your child’s life.  You have to take them to the doctor for shots; sometimes, the doctor even asks you to hold them still so he can attack them with that evil needle.  At night, you allow them to cry themselves to sleep.  You wean them from the bottle so that they can learn to eat real food.  As they get older, you don’t bail them out when they get into trouble at school; you let them suffer the consequences of their misbehavior.  When they are swamped with homework, you help, but you don’t do the work for them.  They don’t understand.  If you loved me, they say, why wouldn’t you want to spare me pain?  Your response as a parent is, “I hate seeing you suffer.  But I know this pain is for your good.  I know the purpose for it, and I can’t explain it to you now.  Someday, you’ll understand.”

False idea #3: The Bible teaches that good people are exempt from suffering.  This one comes from within the Church.  And it comes, I believe, because people misuse the Bible.  For example, people like to quote Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.  They say, “See, God wants to give us prosperity, not suffering.  We just have to claim all that prosperity God wants to give us.”  But they don’t read the entire chapter.  This is a letter written from Jeremiah to thousands of Jews who are in exile in Babylon.  Jeremiah is writing with bad news: they won’t get to come home to Israel. They will be in exile for 70 years.  But God hasn’t forgotten them.  He will bring them home after the 70 years are over.  That’s why He says He knows the plans He has for them.  He’s not talking there to 21st century Americans; He’s talking to Israelites 600 years before the birth of Christ.  Or they will use Isaiah 53:5, which says He was bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed, and say, “Jesus died so you would never have to be sick.”  But every other place in Scripture that talks about Jesus’ death talks about the spiritual forgiveness we receive.  So it’s obvious the healing Isaiah was referring to meant the healing of our souls, not our bodies.

Think about it: The apostles of Jesus suffered intensely.  Paul accepted Christ as his Savior, and then became impoverished, rejected by his own family, imprisoned many times, beaten many times, nearly stoned to death, shipwrecked, falsely accused, hunted constantly, and ultimately betrayed by his own people and beheaded.  Was this because he wasn’t a good enough person, or because he didn’t have enough faith?  I don’t want to discourage you.  Following Jesus brings joy that far outweighs the pain, as Paul himself said many times, especially in Philippians.  But it certainly doesn’t exempt us from suffering, no matter how faithful we are.  In fact, sometimes faithfully following Jesus involves putting our lives at greater risk, experiencing more short-term pain than if we had a more half-hearted commitment.

So what is God’s answer to the Problem of Pain?  In the short term, God’s answer is you and me.  We are His Church, the Body of Christ.  That means we are supposed to collectively do what He did when He was here.  What did He do?  He went where the hurting people were, and helped them.  He relieved suffering.  He fed the hungry.  He stood up for the oppressed.  And He said an astonishing thing in John 14:12, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  None of us can do what Jesus did.  But collectively, as we all use our spiritual gifts and resources, we can do more good in a day than Jesus could.  That’s why, if people think God doesn’t care, it’s because the Church isn’t doing its job.  That’s why, when we hear statements like the one Stephen Fry made, instead of being offended, we should feel convicted. We should say, “That’s on us.  If we were being the Church, no one would think that way.”

But we aren’t the ultimate answer.  Jesus came and healed, but that was only a temporary solution, meant to show people that God loved them and had power to save.  All those people Jesus healed later died anyway.  In spite of His thousands of miracles, there is still hunger, disease, poverty and oppression. The ultimate answer came on two days at the end of His life. One was Good Friday.  On that day, Jesus was crucified.  People often see that as evidence of the evil of this world; how could such a good man be executed in such a cruel way? But Jesus Himself saw it differently: I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:14-15, 18).  And Hebrews 12:2 says Jesus for the joy set before Him endured the cross.  For the joy!  Just like God allowed evil to be done in Joseph’s life so He could turn it into good, Jesus took all the evil that had ever been done and turned it on Himself, so that He could turn it into the ultimate good.  Because He took personal responsibility for every evil deed in history, even though He was guilty of none of them, He opened a door for us to reconcile with God and live with Him forever.

The other day that shows God’s ultimate answer to the problem of pain is Resurrection Sunday.    When Jesus walked out of that tomb three days after dying, He wasn’t just saying, “I beat death!”  He wasn’t saying, “Now you can leave this cursed Earth and live with me forever!”  No, He was saying, “I have totally reversed the curse.”  The story of humanity begins with a perfect world, and a perfect relationship with God that was destroyed by sin.  But with the cross and the empty tomb, Jesus showed that someday, when He returns after everyone has had a chance to hear the Good News and repent, He will make all things new.  The story ends with a perfect Earth and a perfect relationship with God that can never again be sullied or ruined, because it has been fully redeemed.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien is about two little creatures called hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and the others who help them take the one ring, a symbol of all the evil in the world, to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.  At the end of the story, after so many twists and turns, so many moments when it seemed as if evil would win, the ring is destroyed.  Mount Doom is shattered, and the armies of evil are wiped out.  Sam wakes up and sees his friend Gandalf the wizard and says the following:

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” “A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

Tolkien would often say that his writings were not allegorical.  Unlike his good friend CS Lewis, Tolkien didn’t like allegory.  But he was also a devout Christian, and he knew that someday indeed, The King will return, evil will be destroyed, and everything sad will come untrue.  And we will laugh like we’ve never laughed before.