Today I would like to talk about Ravi Zacharias and his cancer diagnosis. I was so shaken when I heard he was given a bad prognosis. It is hard to imagine that this great man of God is in the final days of his earthly life. I was just 16 years-old when my dad took me to a meeting in Bangalore, India and Ravi was the speaker. Even at that young age, he captivated my attention. 13 years later, I was a resident physician in New York City and Ravi came to speak at Columbia University. I went there with another doctor-in-training and Ravi took time to meet us and talk to us. It was tough to work in New York City hospitals and his words encouraged me a lot. I also attended his Summer Institutes in Chicago. So, much of my life I have been listening to his messages and being blessed by the Word of God.
In Chicago I met Nabeel Qureshi. He converted from Islam to Christianity. Like Ravi, he was also diagnosed with advanced cancer. Like Ravi, he went to Houston to get cancer treatment at M.D.Anderson medical center. When Nabeel went to Houston, it was flooding. Now, we got Covid 19 pandemic. I noticed some parallels, and It’s all sad news.
When we hear about cancers, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, Pandemics ….we spontaneously think about God. How can a loving God allow natural evil?
I remember back in 2005 when the tsunami hit the Indian Ocean. Over 227,000 people died in a single day by a giant tsunami wave. No warning signs, no satellite trackings….without warning a gigantic wave came upon the shores of the ocean and swallowed 227000 people in a single day. This Covid Pandemic is soon going to kill over 100,000 people in America alone. The natural evil gives us a pause. Great philosophers too were rattled by catastrophies.
In 1755 a strong earthquake hit the city of Lisbon in Portugal. After the earthquake, fires and tsunami engulfed the city. Over 100,000 people were killed. Europe was shaken at its foundations. Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire mocked Christian theology. Is this the best of all possible worlds? Are you serious?
You remember during Texas floods, the media was pounding on Joel Osteen for not opening Lakewood Church to house flood victims. Why are you not opening the doors to your church for the flood victims? Joel Osteen preaches the prosperity gospel all the time. Now it is biting a lot of people. Prosperity gospel says that If you have a positive attitude and believe in God, God will bless you with material prosperity, health and wealth. Ravi is now suffering from deadly cancer. Where is God? Where is prosperity gospel? Ravi to his credit did not preach the prosperity gospel. He did not believe in the prosperity gospel. He defended the New Testament gospel and when he stands before our Lord he has nothing to regret.
My parents both got cancer and died in 2018. We all know a loved one who suffered with some form of cancer or other disease. Now, why did God allow his children like Ravi to suffer cancer? All of us struggle with these questions. We call it theodicy: all our answers to the question of why a loving God permits evil, whether human or natural. At one time or the other, theodicy hits every one of us. C.S.Lewis wrote the book The Problem of Pain, explaining the presence of pain in our world. When his dear wife was dying with cancer, he had to experience evil first hand. He went through a lot of soul wrenching as he helplessly watched his dear wife slowly consumed by malignant cancer. He later wrote a book titled Grief Observed. You can see the anger Lewis felt towards God in this book.
How can you allow this suffering to my wife? In 2017, my mother was in terrible pain as she was struggling with breast cancer. Beside her bed, I was on my knees asking God, ‘Why did you allow this? Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881) said, “It is not God I do not accept, but the world he has created”. I talked to John Lennox two days ago. In his recent book, he quoted Dostoyevsky noting that he paints the brutality of this earthly existence so vividly.
Our world is filled with many philosophies and worldviews: Atheism, secularism, humanism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism. Evil is not much of a problem for those systems of thought. Christianity is unique that it spends more time on the existence of evil than all other philosophies and world religions. Secular naturalism says, ‘You are a product of evolution. There is no design or purpose to your life. Make the best of your circumstances. Or as Richard Dawkins put it, ‘You dance to your DNA’. There is no such thing as evil in a naturalistic worldview. It’s nature, red in tooth and claw.
Hinduism says it is your karma. If the virus hits you, you are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t blame anyone, blame yourself. It’s your karma. You are paying for the past deeds from your previous life. More than others, Christians are singled out when natural calamities happen. Where is your loving God you talk about? Don’t jump to easy answers. First take a breath. Relax. Try to absorb the shock. People are suffering in every direction. Watch what you say. Jerry Falwell once said, ‘AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality’. Pat Robertson said, ‘Earthquake happened in Haiti because Haitians made a pact with the devil’. The media wasted no time in lambasting them. We are living in an increasingly secular culture which is devoid of biblical understanding of nature. So, hasty answers will only bring us censure and criticism. Don’t play Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It is better to preach the gospel than blaming the people.
Origin of Natural Evil:
First let us what the Bible says about evil. Evil entered into this world when Adam sinned against God. Sin brought curse on humanity and nature. Reinhold Niebuhr famously said, ‘the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically confirmable doctrine in Christian thought’.
There is no empirical evidence for trinity, atonement or salvation. But the doctrine of original sin has so much evidence all around us: Pandemics, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, deadly bacteria, viruses, diseases, cancer, landslides, avalanches, rape, violence, murder, deceit: they all came upon our world due to original sin. Both human evil and natural evil started after the Fall of Adam and Eve. Take a neighborhood. They may be affected by human evil differently. But when natural evil struck them, every one of them would be affected.
French philosopher Albert Camus wrote the novel The Plague. When the plague hits the town, it affects everyone. When the plague hits the town, every one must run. The plague does not care whether you are a college professor, student, peasant or plumber, doctor or engineer, young or old, white or black or brown: you must flee. Natural evil affects everyone and it is here to stay. Soon Iphone 12 is coming, computer technology is booming, we are advancing in many areas of life, but natural evil is not going to go away.
Questioning God’s existence is not going to stop….People are dying in hurricanes and floods and tsunamis.
Where is your God?
Is your God under quarantine?
If your God under ‘Stay in Heaven’ orders?
Don’t you say that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent? Where is your all knowing, all powerful, all loving God?
Don’t you say that God is the creator and designer of the physical universe?
Don’t you say that God designed the natural laws that govern the universe?
If the natural evil is the product of natural laws, don’t you blame God for the natural evil?
Atheists say it is logically impossible for God to exist because as an all powerful and all loving God he is doing nothing to stop the pandemics. Why didGod allow the cancer to enter Ravi’s body? But I think, if you take the entirety of Christian worldview, it is logically possible for God to exist even in the presence of natural evil. We should not limit our thinking solely on the nature of God, but also on the plan and provision of God.
I would like to give you 4 things.
1.Sovereignty of God: First, we should understand the sovereignty of God. This universe is real. It is not a simulation. Nick Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher who teaches at the University of Oxford. He is active in transhumanism. He argues we are living in a computer simulation. He says it is twenty percent likely that we actually live in a computer simulation. But that is not what the Bible teaches.
The blood we bleed is real, it is not a simulation.
The pain we feel is real, it is not a simulation.
The tears we shed are real, it is not a simulation.
The universe is a real place, it is not a simulation.
This life is real and God is sovereign. He is still on His throne. He causes natural disasters, he causes earthquakes, he causes hurricanes and tsunamis. Franklin Graham said God did not plan this Covid Pandemic. He is wrong. Don’t try to protect God’s skin. God can take care of Himself. Some people say, ‘Satan did that, Devil caused this cancer’ ‘Satan sent the cancer into Ravi’s body’. Augustine said, ‘Satan is a rebellious servant’. Satan is not opposite to God. Some think, ‘God on one side, Satan on the other side, they are fighting with each other, there is a tug of war going on’. Satan is only a rebellious servant of God, He is not an equal opponent to God.
You remember the Ebola crisis in Liberia back in 2014. Dr.Kent Brantly was serving a medical doctor in Liberia for Samaritan’s Purse. People were contracting Ebola all around Dr.Brantly.
He could have packed his bags and flown back to the United States. But he stayed in Liberia and served his patients. Not surprisingly he contracted Ebola. He was evacuated to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. He became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
He went to the White House and met President Obama. On NBC Nightly News, Matt Lauer interviewed Dr.Brantly. He asked, ‘Dr.Brantly, some people said, ‘he’s saying his faith in God saved him’. But is that in some way saying, ‘All those people in Liberia who died because of this virus didn’t have the same faith in God – that he didn’t spare them?’ I met this doctor in a conference where he told us, ‘‘there is nothing special about me’. That is what natural evil teaches us: ‘there is nothing special about us’.
God is sovereign over his creation. He decides who will live and who will die. He carries out His will according to His own pleasure and purpose. In the 14th century, Black plague wreaked havoc in Europe. After the plague, people lost faith in the Catholic Church and it facilitated the Reformation. God can shape history through these Pandemics.
Most of the time we do not know the reasons behind natural disasters. Augustine wrote in the City of God, ‘The difficult task we face is how to learn how not to know the reason for evil’. It does not mean natural evil is irrational. It simply means we do not know the reasons. Only God knows. Only God knows why Ravi got this cancer at this time without any hope of recovery.
2.Sufficiency of God:
Secondly, the sufficiency of God. Apostle Paul was suffering from some unknown disease. He prayed to the Lord,’Lord, remove this thorn from me’. Lord Jesus told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness’. That’s God’s answer to natural evil in the life of Paul: My grace is sufficient for you.
Not long ago, I had a patient who came to me complaining of a cough. I suspected something very serious and I told her to go to the Emergency Room immediately and get a CT scan of her chest. She was upset I did not prescribe her an antibiotic. She wrote a bad review on Google about me. After a few days, her cough worsened. She collapsed, was taken to ER, a CT Scan of her chest showed a blood clot in her chest. She later regretted that she did not heed my advice when she first came to my clinic. She told me, ‘I should have listened to you’. Then she updated her Google review and wrote nice things about me. In the same way, we tell God, ‘this is my problem and this is the solution I want from you’. God says that is not your problem and that is not the solution you need.
We get upset and write bad reviews on God. When we get full realization, we regret. Many of our great philosophers will modify their reviews about God once they realize why God allowed evil in this world.
Another error we commit when we think about natural evil is we forget the incarnation of Christ and His cross. Bob Mulholland was a senior Vice President at Merrill Lynch. On September 11,2001 he was holding a meeting with his staff. Suddenly they felt the building rock. They watched in horror as smoke poured out of a gaping hole in the building directly across from theirs. They started to panic. Some ran from window to window. Some were paralyzed with fear. Some were shouting helplessly. Bob Mulholland came to his senses. He went to each one of them and said, ‘It’s going to be alright. We’re getting out of here now. And you’re coming with me. Not the elevator, take the stairs’.
Amid the chaos and turbulence, he stayed calm and decisive. Thanks to his leadership, everyone escaped before the towers collapsed. Let me quote what Harvard Business Review wrote about him,
“Bob Mulholland courageously performed one of the most crucial emotional tasks of leadership: He helped himself and his people find meaning in the face of chaos and madness. To do so, he first attuned to and expressed the shared emotional reality. That’s why the direction he eventually articulated resonated at the gut level. His words and his actions reflected what people were feeling in their hearts’
I liked those words: Meaning in the face of chaos and madness. That’s what Lord Jesus did for us. He came to this world to give us ‘meaning in the face of chaos and madness’. Through His incarnation, he entered our ‘shared emotional reality’. At Lazarus’ grave, he cried with his sisters. Professor John Lennox told me, ‘When Jesus cried, it is God sharing our human experience’
In the New Testament the Greek word ‘splanchna’ is used to express the emotions of Jesus. We call the nerves that supply our gut, ‘splanchnic nervous system’. The death of Lazarus, a consequence of natural evil. Jesus cried at his grave. He identified with us ‘at the gut level’. Like Bob Mulholland who saved people from collapsing towers, Jesus came to this world to save us. Our philosophers are fixated on this world. But our world is a collapsing tower. Like the Twin Towers struck by planes, it was struck by the Original Sin and Fall. It is bound for collapse. You are not going to stop it. But the Savior came to save us and lead us to safety. Our Savior is sufficient to lead us through this evil.
- Soul-Making of God:
Thirdly, the soul-making of God. The natural evil helps us better our souls. Philosopher John Hicks called this ‘Soul making’. Our natural state is disobedience. So, God has to send storms into our lives to teach us humility and obedience. You see teenagers rebel against their parents to gain their own sense of identity. Humanity rebels against God to gain its own identity. God intervenes to teach us our fragility. Natural evil is one of his tools to teach us our true identity.
Like teenagers we see life as a hedonistic paradise. Daddy, if you truly love me, you will allow me to go to that party. Mama, if you truly love me, you will pay for my trip to Vegas’. Teenagers assume that the purpose of a loving parent is to maximize their pleasure. We look at God in the same way. The purpose of a loving God is to make this life a pain free hedonistic paradise.
But God never promised a hedonistic paradise. If you believe that, sooner or later, you are set for a rude awakening. The purpose of our life is not pleasure or happiness. It is the glory of God. Thomas Jefferson told us, ‘life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’. But It should be, ‘life, liberty, and the glory of God’. Millions of people are depressed in our society because they see life as one long pursuit of happiness, which they never realize.
Irenaeus of Lyon lived in France. His dates were between 150 – 202 AD. He was born in Smyrna, that is Izmir in present day Turkey. He was raised by Christian parents. During
the persecution of Christians by Marcus Aurelius he pondered the problem of pain and suffering. Irenaeus interpreted the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale as an allegory for the human Fall. Jonah was disobedient to God, instead of going to Nineveh, he boarded a ship to Tarshish. God sent a hurricane. Jonah was thrown into the ocean by other sailors. He was swallowed by the whale. The hurricane and the whale taught Jonah that he is not the master of his own destiny, he is fragile, he is vulnerable. From the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God and God saved him. Irenaeus said that is what God is doing to humanity through natural evil. Like Jonah we rebel against God and choose our own destiny. Then God sends a hurricane, we get swallowed by pain and suffering, we repent and pray to God. That is soul-making through suffering. It helps us to see what is in our hearts and to acquire the knowledge of God.
Apostle Paul wrote Philippians chapter 3:10, “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death’. That I may know him: For Paul, the purpose of life is the knowledge of God. In Acts 27, when the hurricane hit his ship on his way to Rome, he was not distressed. He got up and helped the other sailors who were frozen in fear.
Paul wrote in Romans 12:21, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’. Earlier I talked about Dr.Kent Brantly. He wrote a book titled, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic. Just read the title of this book: How loving our neighbor led us into the heart of the Ebola Epidemic. When we love Jesus, we love our neighbors and we jump into the heart of the epidemics and pandemics. During this Covid Pandemic, I am still working in my hospital 6 days a week to take care of patients because that is what God called us to do, to serve our neighbors.
- Solution of God: Finally, God has a solution for natural evil. Atheistic secular humanism has no solution. Albert Camus wrote in Plague. Let me quote a passage,
“Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers” Many people adopted Camus’ view. Life sucks, but help others, strive to be healers, do your best etc. Note Camus’s words: ‘he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory’. But the tale God told us is one of a final victory. God will eliminate death, this earth and the universe will be replaced by a new earth and a new universe. In God’s tale, there will come a day when we will not have any bodily pain or mental pains. Our blessed Savior, Lord Jesus Christ is always with us to comfort us, to guide us and to take us Home when we finish the race.
Above all other religions and worldviews, Christian faith has the best explanation for the existence of natural evil. There is no logical incompatibility between the existence of God and existence of natural evil. God’s answer for evil is available to all of us:
Sovereignty of God
Sufficiency of God
Soul-making of God
Solution of God
May God help you, strengthen you and comfort you when you face moral evil and natural evil in this world. Let us remember Ravi and other suffering saints in our prayers.