Why the Bad Stuff?

November 1, 1755, was an important religious holiday in Portugal. Normally King Joseph I and his queen Mariana Victoria of Spain would join the great crowds and attend a midmorning worship service at one of the large churches. But one of their daughters wanted to spend the holiday at the coast. It was a beautiful day, so the king agreed. The family went to a service at dawn, then left their royal Ribeira Palace on the bank of the Tagus River to enjoy a day in the countryside, little knowing they would never see their home again.

About 9:40 that morning, a section of sea floor ruptured off the coast of Portugal, producing one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, with an estimated magnitude of 8.5 to 9.0 on the Richter scale. The records of the day suggest that there were three distinct quakes within a span of ten minutes, the second shock being the strongest. While many of the details were lost over time, there is no doubt that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was one of the most significant natural disasters in history. Records show that the shaking was felt from Finland to Africa, and tsunamis of various sizes struck North Africa, France, England, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, and the islands of the Caribbean.

The earthquake destroyed much of the city of Lisbon, including the royal palace with its library of some seventy thousand volumes, the king’s cathedral, and a priceless art collection. The churches, full of worshipers, collapsed, killing many hundreds of people. Thousands of homes and other buildings were destroyed or damaged, and crowds of survivors ran out of doors to safety, gathering around the docks where there were no buildings to collapse upon them.

From the docks, they could watch the water of the bay recede out to sea, exposing lost shipwrecks and assorted items of lost cargo. Not realizing the danger they were in, many ran out to search for treasure in the sunken ships.

Unknown to the crowd, the quakes would be followed by a series of three tsunamis. The water first pushed westward, emptying the bay. A few minutes later, a tsunami wave twenty to thirty feet high, crashed up the Tagus River into the city, destroying what remained of the buildings that were located close to the water. The docks and all the ships in the harbour were demolished, and thousands of people who had survived the earthquake were lost to the tsunamis. Horrible as this was, there was more to follow.

Many people had left their homes in such a hurry that they did not put out their cooking fires, and candles had been burning in every church for the holiday. Soon, fire began to spread through the city, aided by looters wishing to hide the evidence of their thievery. The fire destroyed much of what the earthquake and tsunami left. Fires burned out of control for five or six days. The All Saints Royal Hospital, the largest in the city, burned to the ground, killing hundreds of patients.

The royal family survived the disaster, but King Joseph I was never willing to live inside a walled building again. The entire royal court was moved to a giant tented complex outside of Lisbon where he lived until his death. (http://www.lisbonweekendguild.com/Lisbon-information/1755_lisbon_ earthquake_2.html.)

A turning point

Lisbon was the fourth largest city in Europe at the time of the earthquake, with a population estimated at about 200,000 to 250,000. Because of the excellent sailing skills of the Portuguese explorers and traders, it was one of the richest cities of its day.

But the earthquake changed everything. Between the quake, the tsunamis, and the fires, thirty thousand to forty thousand people were killed and 75 to 85 percent of the city was destroyed. Portugal lost much of its political and economic power, and that was never recovered.

But more importantly to us, the event also marked a turning point in the way people thought.

Before the earthquake, people in Europe had a very idealistic way of looking at religion and the world. Some European philosophers thought that the world was just as God had created it—the best of all possible worlds. Other leading thinkers had their doubts. The earthquake seemed to settle the question: this was clearly not the best possible world.:

From a religious point of view, there didn’t seem to be any reason for the terrible Lisbon catastrophe of 1755. Some church leaders insisted that the earthquake was some kind of divine punishment on the city. But others pointed out that the red-light district—the seedy section where prostitutes, drugs, and strong drink was available at every corner—was only lightly damaged, while most of the major churches and cathedrals were destroyed. That didn’t fit well with the idea that God had sent punishment.

People began to search for other ways to understand their world. The Lisbon earthquake led to a major change in European thinking culture. Catastrophes came to be seen to be the results of natural forces rather than divine judgments. God seemed to be distant and uninvolved, and scientists became more interested in searching for the natural reasons why earthquakes, storms, droughts, and other disasters happened.

The problem of evil

We may not experience something as dramatic or catastrophic as the Great Lisbon Earthquake, but one thing is the same in all of our lives: bad things happen.

Some of us face diseases such as cancer or hepatitis. Some deal with crippling injuries or birth defects. Traffic accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. We see reports of storms, wars, and crimes taking lives every day. Where does all this suffering and sadness come from? Why do these things happen?

We’ve talked about the wonders of the universe and the power of a God who could create such things. But where is this God when people are suffering? Why does God let evil things happen to us?

If God created such a wonderful world for us, where did it all go wrong?

Curse God and die

The Bible book of Job tells a story of a very rich and religious man named Job. He has a wife, seven sons, and three daughters. His fields are full of oxen, donkeys, camels, and sheep. He is a faithful follower of God, and he is blessed with wealth and happiness.

But then the story shifts to an unusual point of view— the courts of God Himself. There a meeting is taking place. All the “sons of God” have been called together and with them is “the adversary”—or as we usually translate it—Satan. And Satan has been walking among God’s children on earth.

“Did you meet My servant, Job?” God asks. “He is a good man, a faithful follower.”

Satan snorted. “Of course he’s faithful—You’ve given him everything he could possibly want and protected him from any evil. Take away all he treasures, and he will curse You!”

“OK,” God says. “Let’s see if you are right. Do anything you want to Job— just don’t touch him.”

And so it happened: disasters of all kinds struck quickly. Job’s oxen, donkeys, and camels were stolen by raiders. Fire fell from the sky and killed all his sheep. Then a storm knocked down the house when his children were eating, killing them all. In one day, everything Job held dear was gone.

Did he blame God when these terrible things happened? No. Job shaved his head, tore his clothes, and said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

This time, when God questions Satan about Job’s faithfulness, Satan says, “A man will do anything You want as long as You protect his health. Take that away and he will curse You.”

Again, God agrees to a test. “Do whatever you want to his body, but don’t take his life.”

Now Satan struck Job with terrible sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. As Job was sitting in ashes (this showed his sorrow), scraping at his sores with a broken piece of pottery, his wife said, “What else can happen to you? Just curse God and die already!”

“No,” Job said. “We take the good things when God gives them to us. Shouldn’t we also take the bad?”

Then Job is joined by friends who first try to comfort him, then try to convince him that he has clearly sinned and offended God. Why else would he be punished so severely?

But Job will not agree. “I have done nothing wrong,” he insists. But he does wish that he had never been born and begs God to explain why these terrible things have happened.

When God finally speaks to Job, it is out of a mighty whirlwind. “Where were you, Job, when I created the earth? Are you stronger than a storm or the mighty creatures of the earth?”

God doesn’t answer Job’s questions. He seems to say, “You don’t know enough to understand these issues. You can’t understand—you have to trust Me.”

And that is what Job does. He is sorry that he ever doubted God and promises to trust Him.

The story ends with God blessing Job again and giving him more than he ever had before. He has a new family of children, and lives long enough to see four generations of grandchildren.

Behind the scenes

Why do bad things happen in a world that God created? We can learn several things from the story of Job.

1. The bad things that happen to us are not caused by God.

2. There is something going on behind the scenes of the world we live in, something we can’t see.

3. Some things that happen don’t have an explanation that humans can understand.

Let’s go back to the Creation story in the Bible. The first chapter of Genesis tells about the perfect world God is creating. Humans are placed in a beautiful garden paradise in chapter 2, and given the job of naming all the creatures. Adam and Eve are told that they can eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden, except one. This one is identified as “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The two humans are told to stay away from it.

But in chapter 3, Eve apparently strays too close to the tree, and hears an enticing voice. “Did God tell you not to eat this fruit?”

It was a snake, speaking to her from the tree. “God said that we can eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden except this one,” she answered. “If we eat it, we will die.”

“Of course you won’t die,” said the snake. “God just knows that if you eat this fruit, you’ll become like Him, knowing good and evil.”

Eve was faced with a choice— trust God and obey Him, or take a chance with the snake. Eve chose to eat the fruit, and Adam joined her in disobeying God. That’s when everything changed—because behind the scenes, something else was happening.

Fallen from heaven

In the book of Ezekiel, the Bible tells about an angel who went bad. “You were the anointed cherub. . . . You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, Till iniquity was found in you” (Ezekiel 28:14, 15). This angel is called Lucifer in some places, but in the Bible book of Luke, Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18).

This fallen angel is the adversary from the story of Job, the one who accuses humans of not being faithful. This fallen angel is the one who speaks to Eve through the snake in the Garden.

Behind the scenes of human history, a whole different drama is being played out. Lucifer, an angel of heaven, rebelled against God. He wanted to be in charge instead of God. The typical human response to rebellion is to destroy the rebel. So why didn’t God do that?

One answer might be that God couldn’t, that He didn’t have the power to destroy Lucifer. But according to the story, God created Lucifer— as well as the rest of the universe—so it certainly seems like destroying him would be no difficulty.

The price of freedom

The answer might go back to what we learned about God and the special gifts He gave humans. If God gave humans the gift of free will, it could only be because He wanted them to be free to exercise that will. If God wanted creatures who always obeyed without question, who always followed every rule exactly, He could have created robots. Take away the freedom to choose, and you take away the possibility of making wrong, painful choices.

But without free will, you can’t have relationships. With the proper threat or bribe, you can get someone to spend time with you. But if they don’t “choose” to be your friend, then you have no real relationship with them.

If we suppose that God also created the angels with freedom to choose, that He also wanted to have real relationships with them, then we can see that Lucifer was free to rebel against God. And what would be the result if God just destroyed Lucifer for rebelling?

Everyone else would obey God out of fear—fear of what He would do to them if they stepped out of line. Freedom would be lost.

So God expelled Lucifer from heaven—to our earth. Now he is known as the adversary, Satan. And in the Garden, Satan was the one tempting Eve to doubt God. He was tempting Eve to join in his rebellion against God.

When the humans chose to join the rebellion against God, everything changed. God had warned them that eating the fruit would cause death, and it did. From that moment on, death was a part of life on our earth. From that moment on, Adam and Eve began to age and die.

Instead of only roses, now there were thorns. Instead of only flowers or vegetable plants, now there were weeds. Instead of long life and health, there was sickness and pain and death.


What could God do? Was there no way to preserve freedom, but still stop the endless cycle of pain and death? There was a way. A plan. We will explore that in the next chapter.

The content of this post is taken from Beyond Imagination — There is more to life than we know, by John T. Baldwin, L. James Gibson and Jerry D. Thomas.

Previous chapters can be found here.

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