The Problem of Evil: Helping Teens Understand Why Jesus Had to Die

How can a good God allow evil and suffering? It’s definitely a top question people ask.

Outside of the philosophy classroom or debate stage, however, the question gets phrased in far more personal terms. Particularly in the teenage years. Why did God let my mom die from cancer? Why are people so mean to me? Why do I hate myself so much?

Like with many big questions, Scriptures doesn’t give a detailed explanation for the ‘why’ of evil’s existence. And while human sinfulness can account for a great deal of our suffering, it still begs the question why God allows for such suffering to exist in the first place.

And yet, God does not leave us without a response in Scripture. The response we’re given, however, isn’t abstract or philosophical. It’s deeply personal and rooted in history. It’s a hope and a remedy – something we can join in and pass on to others.

As we read the full story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, we find God drawing near to us, inviting us into his loving arms and saying, “Let me invite you into a story…”

As the story unfolds, we see God weaving together a narrative that moves from creation to the Fall, from the formation of Israel to exile, from their return from exile to foreign rule, until finally we get to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and then the formation of the church and the hope of new creation.

Throughout it all, the narrative illustrates humankind’s struggle with evil – both from within and without – and the way sin ruins everything it touches. It’s the story of Cain murdering Abel out of sibling jealousy, breaking apart the family. It’s about Abraham repeatedly lying that his wife was his sister and giving her up to save his own neck. It’s King David coveting another man’s wife, getting her pregnant, and then having the husband killed to cover it all up. It’s about the pervasive, ongoing, unfaithfulness and rebellion of God’s people leading to nation-wide suffering, death and exile.

But more importantly, alongside the horror, it is the story of a steadfast and loving God, patiently putting his broken creation right – naming, judging, subduing, and redeeming every form of evil – through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

When we read about Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, and encouraging the hopeless, Jesus is taking on what’s wrong with our physical world: natural evil and its effects. He’s naming, judging, restoring, and subduing the physical realm of this creation.

When we see Jesus resisting temptation and casting out demons, he’s taking on what’s wrong with our spiritual world: spiritual evil and its effects. He’s naming, judging, restoring, and subduing the spiritual realm of this creation.

When Jesus forgives sin and combats false teaching with the truth, Jesus is taking on what’s wrong with us, his image-bearers: moral evil and its effects.  He’s naming, judging, restoring, and subduing the very humans he created, redeeming the image of God within us.

And ultimately, Jesus’s ministry climaxes with the cross on Good Friday. It is on the cross that Jesus, as a conquering king, definitively embodies and crucifies evil and its effects in this world.

On the cross, Jesus takes upon himself the fullness of natural evil – both with its physical and emotional effects. He is painfully tortured and nailed to the cross as his body is broken. He suffers the agony of abandonment by all those who called themselves his friends – those into whom he poured himself over the past three years. Can you image how much the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter hurt Jesus at the core of his heart?

On the cross, Jesus lets the fullness of spiritual evil, which has wanted his throne from the beginning, do its worst to him – even kill him.

And on the cross we see God ultimately overcoming the fullness of moral evil. Human sin must be fully named and judged for the evil it is and the evil it causes before it can be justly forgiven. And since the wages of human sin is human death, Jesus – as fully human – entirely assumes the sin of his people, which required his very human lifeblood as sin rightfully deserves. And since Jesus is also fully God, his one-time death infinitely fulfills the just consequence of human sin.

A good and loving God would never overlook, defend or justify evil’s existence; a good and loving God would empathize with those who are suffering, take that suffering upon himself, and then ultimately destroy every form of evil, undoing all of evil’s negative effects.

A good and loving God’s response to evil would be exactly what Jesus did on the cross. And so, God’s apologetic against evil and suffering is Good Friday.

But there is more we need to tell our teenagers about God’s response to evil. For while Jesus decidedly overcame evil on the cross and secured victory through the resurrection, we are still waiting for the day when Jesus will return and evil will finally and ultimately be no more.

For now, evil and its effects remains very real. And we have a part to play in God’s redemptive story as followers of Jesus. Jesus has given us – the church – his Spirit, that we might be the body of Christ here and now, seeking to join him in naming, judging, restoring, and subduing every evil in his name.

And because we are Jesus’ people filled with his resurrection life, we don’t fight in vain. We have been given the full armor of God (Ephesians 6). We are called “overcomers of evil” (1 John 2). We live and labor in the sure hope that our victory, in the end, is secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And so we, too, are to be God’s apologetic against evil. We are to be Good Friday people – sitting with people in their suffering and relieving it where we can, opposing spiritual and systemic evil with prayer and sacrificial love, and repenting from moral evil, discipling people towards obedience.

Walking this path is a much more difficult response than a bullet point list, but getting to Easter Sunday only comes through enduring Good Friday. So next time someone asks you why a good God allows pain and suffering, I encouraged you to lovingly sit near them, and say, “Let me invite you into a story…”

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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