Category Archives: Bible Related

Bible Related

God and Suffering

Why does God allow suffering in the world?

This is a common question. How should this question be answered? There are many ways to approach this question. I do not speak as someone with theological or seminary training. But I have been a Christian for over 40 years and I have always worked at understanding the Bible and have tried to have an intelligent faith. I have not always been satisfied with some of the answers from Christian writers to this question. Dealing with this from an individual point of view is a very different thing than if you are dealing with this as a philosophical question. If you are going through some sort of suffering yourself, or someone you care about is suffering in a particular way, then your question may be “Why is this particular kind of suffering happening to me?” Asking this way it has more immediacy and is a more personal issue. I have faced this question such as when I unexpectedly lost my job and was unemployed for a significant time or after deaths of family. On a personal level we normally don’t really know the why. But I do believe that searching out God’s will in those situations helps cope with it.

I hope to try and avoid some points of confusion in my response to this. Sometimes the question gets sort of reinterpreted, so that the nonchristian is thinking one thing and the Christian responds to it actually thinking of a different question. If you’re asking “Why is there suffering in the world?” this is different from asking “Why is there evil in the world?” But sometimes Christians don’t actually distinguish between these two questions. But I would say they are two different questions, but the Biblical answers to them are related.

Perhaps I should start with “Why is there evil in the world?” This is spelled out in Genesis, which I accept. Other belief systems don’t deal well with explaining the origin of evil. There are some important things to note in understanding how Christianity answers this question. God created angels and humans, humans being material creatures made in His image, angels not being fundamentally material but made to serve Him. Humans are redeemable, but angels are not, according to Scripture. God wants to relate to us as human beings, but we are born with a sinful nature that separates us from Him. So God has a plan for redemption of human beings that evil cannot stop. Humans can learn but learning is not adequate for restoring our relationship with God. God must act into His creation to redeem and restore fallen human beings and to restore the rest of the material creation. Causing evil is not the same as allowing evil. God does not cause evil as I understand Scripture, but he may allow it. If you follow through the entire story from the Bible, Satan rebels very early on and even though he does great evil, his evil does not stop God from carrying out His plan. Since evil cannot prevent or undo God’s plan from coming about, even evil can indirectly bring some glory to God. Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, but Adam and Eve were responsible for their own sin. In Genesis 3, God’s responses to Satan, and the Woman, and the Man were very personal, directed to each of them in particular. Satan did not make them sin, but he presented them with the situation that tempted them. Satan is responsible for his sin also, and God will deal with that in time. Evil presents human beings with choices to be made since God has made us as moral beings. God does not intend to turn human beings into robots that always follow a script. We make our own creative choices.

Then comes the question, “Why is there suffering in the world?” God has self-existence, so He is not like us. He had no beginning since He is outside of time and space. He existed when there was no time, space, or matter. When humans sinned, this made human beings deserve to die, to forfeit their life. As Scripture says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” But God did not just wipe out Adam and Eve as soon as they sinned, he made them live out a long life so they had to live with the consequences of sin in themselves and in the world. But He promised hope of redemption even back then to Adam and Eve (see Genesis 3:15). The sin of Adam and Eve meant that all of humanity from then forward had to live in a material creation that was corrupted by human sin. It also meant that human relationships and human thinking were corrupted. Thus, the whole array of human problems came about, selfishness, unbelief, distrust, dishonesty, violence, and on and on. Much suffering is because of human sin. I see no reason God should be considered “obligated” to “fix” things caused by us as human beings. But there is a need for hope and we do need God’s love. If the Earth were a perfect environment, would that make everything good? No.

The Earth itself was created initially as a perfect environment for humans and other life (Genesis 1:31). There were seasons but seasons would not have had such extremes of temperature as what happens today. Then as human evil worsened in the world, God judged the world in the Flood of Noah, which changed the entire planet. The original beautiful Earth was downgraded in this judgement. The changes brought about in the Noahic Flood led to harsher climates, land that could not support plants, and destructive weather phenomena. These harsh aspects of life on Earth were not the norm in the beginning, they were a price mankind paid for human evil. In a world as it was first created, with a perfect environment, human beings still became more and more evil. After the Noahic Flood, humanity started over with a man who was a righteous man who believed in God (Noah). Natural disasters are sometimes referred to by Christians as “natural evil.” But I don’t agree with describing natural disasters this way. Natural disasters are a judgment, a consequence of human evil, they are not acts of evil really.

But God is in sovereign control of natural disasters. Isaiah 45:6 ends with the statement, “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Then verse 7 continues, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” We could debate whether God does disaster directly or indirectly and what that means. But God clearly takes responsibility for disaster here in Isaiah 45. This is the kind of statement that can make theologians uncomfortable. But I have never really had a problem with this. The God of the Bible is our Creator. He can use whatever means He chooses to accomplish His ends. He does act in a way consistent with his holy character, but we often struggle to completely understand Him. Some people have a difficult time accepting that God essentially owns us and has the right to be our judge. God can decide who lives, when they live, and who dies because He is our Creator. He gave us life so he holds our life in his hands, whether we acknowledge it or not (see Daniel 5:23 and John 15:5). This does not take away human choice. This is what the Bible teaches about who God is. So, how we react to suffering is connected to our view of God and our view of ourselves. God is also not a judge who is indifferent or uncaring about our lives or the difficult things we go through. He is willing to allow some difficulties so we will seek answers from Him and possibly learn from the experience.

In a fallen world, I think suffering is something that makes us fallen human beings able to learn important lessons about life. If we had everything our own way, we wouldn’t seek God in and of ourselves. God does not take pleasure in human suffering, but He wants willing followers, not robots. Suffering is uncomfortable but it can motivate us to seek God and find answers. I started college as a very good student but after my first two years (as an agnostic), I began to have problems and eventually had to drop out of college. I became very depressed and even had some thoughts of suicide. But I started rethinking God’s existence and this led to me becoming a Christian. If I hadn’t had these emotional problems while I was not a Christian, I may not have ever sought God. Many people find this to be true. If some suffering will help someone come to a redeemed relationship with God (through faith in Christ) then God may orchestrate that suffering to bring someone back to Him.

I know this does not answer everything. There are many questions about suffering these short comments won’t answer. Sometimes parents experience the death of a child. This is a very painful thing for a parent. But God doesn’t see our lives in isolation. We each have a place in time and our lives influence others. Even the death of a child can influence others in surprising ways, in time. The suffering we go through in this life also gives occasions for us to learn to help each other. We also experience suffering sometimes from our own sin and sometimes from the sin of others. God allows all sorts of short-term suffering or even some long-term suffering to happen to all kinds of people. But our attitude toward God matters a lot in facing suffering. Suffering makes us reexamine ourselves. We are not in control, but we are God’s creatures and are responsible to Him.

This was the key in the case of Job in the Old Testament. He apparently lived about the time of Jacob or Jacob’s children (from Genesis). His case is very unusual in that Scripture clearly spells out that Satan instigated the suffering of Job. Satan is not frequently doing this in our lives, this would be very rare I think. Job was a rare individual. Satan challenged God regarding Job and God accepted the challenge. God knows us better than Satan. Job lost all his ten children and much of what he owned. Then he lost his health and his suffering was great for some unknown period of time. But when God spoke to Job God’s “lecture” in Job chapters 38 to 41 was not about all that Satan did. God did not tell Job why it all happened as it unfolded. But Job learned about how great God is and how small and limited we are as his children. Suffering can help us understand our place in the broader scheme of God’s purpose.

God will deal justly with both those who suffer and those who cause suffering. The Bible gives examples. God also identified with us in our suffering by taking human form and living life in our fallen world, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus showed that, as God, he can end suffering. But it’s mankind’s sin problem and separation from God that had to be dealt with first, not eliminating all suffering. Not only did God come down in our form, but Jesus took all evil onto himself and suffered a Roman crucifixion, to make a way of redemption for us, so we can have a relationship with God. God’s plan will undo the effects of sin and end suffering in the future for those who believe (Revelation 21:4). But He will not just ignore evil. When I say this I’m not referring only to evil in the world. God does not ignore evil in the world, or evil in each of us either. He made a way through faith in Jesus Christ, for us to return to Him. We wouldn’t want God’s justice to apply to us. We need God’s mercy and grace to apply to us. Jesus suffered so we can experience that, if we accept it.

The wise men and the star of bethlehem

Every December people wonder about the account in the book of Matthew about the magi who made the trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to see the child Jesus. There have been many speculations about what the star was. But identifying the star has never been a burning question to me. Instead I’ve always been more interested in the magi themselves and their story in Matthew chapter 2 in the New Testament. The important thing is really what we believe about Jesus, not what we believe about the star of Bethlehem. Christians have a variety of opinions on the star. There are also some misconceptions Christians have about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, from not fully understanding what the New Testament tells us. The account about the magi (or ‘wise men’ if you prefer) is only in Matthew 2. The account in Luke about Jesus’ birth does not mention it.

From movies, Christmas card images, and television programs the magi are usually depicted as being present the night of Jesus’ birth, with the shepherds. But this is not correct according to the Bible because the magi visited Joseph and Mary at a house somewhere in vicinity of Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary were not staying with the animals the whole time they were in Bethlehem! So the magi would have visited Jerusalem and Bethelem some months after Jesus’ birth. Another point misunderstood is that it is often assumed that anyone looking in the sky could have seen the special light or star that marked Jesus’ birth. But this is not certain. It could well be that only the magi saw this special light. When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul saw the light from Jesus but his companions did not (Acts 9:3-7). If it was only the magi who saw the light, then it certainly was something supernatural. However, often people today want to identify a natural astronomical event that would “explain” the star at Jesus’ birth. Thus people have proposed many astronomical events as being associated with Jesus’ birth in some way. Everything from meteors, to comets, to supernova, to various planetary conjunctions have been suggested. The problems with these natural astronomical events relating to the star of Bethlehem often revolves around either when it happened or how visible it was to the magi. It is worth noting that to Christian believers it may be encouraging to consider that a natural astronomical event corresponded to the “Christmas star,” but nonchristians may have the opposite reaction. A non-believer may be suspicious of Christians who try to connect Jesus’ birth to an astronomical event because to them it may seem forced and artificial. I would say God is sovereign over both natural and supernatural events, but He does not depend on a natural astronomical event.

What kind of astronomical event could be the star of Bethlehem?

This question has been debated for many generations. There are more than a dozen astronomical events that occurred in the years between 7 B.C. and 1 B.C. that have been suggested to possibly explain the star of Bethlehem. The natural astronomical events do not generally lend themselves to fitting the Biblical account. But we can consider some of them. In considering the astronomical events, we should point out that the Bible does not condone or encourage belief in astrology. So in order to relate an astronomical event to the Biblical account, it has to naturally fit a sound interpretation of the Bible, it has to be an event that would be considered very notable by the Magi, and it must agree with the dates and timing of the events in relation to both the Matthew chapter 2 account and the Luke chapter 2 account in the New Testament. I have doubts that any natural astronomical event can satisfy all these requirements. But we can consider the options.

First, in order to consider the astronomical events that could theoretically be relevant to the star of Bethlehem, we must narrow down the timing to whatever extent we can. This is often done based on the date of the death of Herod the Great, who died some time after Joseph and Mary went to Egypt to protect the child. Many scholars would put the death of Herod at 4 or 5 B.C. His death must be after Jesus’ birth. Some scholars question this date and so the time of the death of Herod has become a controversy in itself. The scholars who disagree with the common 4 B.C. date usually suggest it was 1 B.C. I am no expert on this but I think the later date of 1 B.C. is better for the death of Herod at reconciling various information with Luke 3:1 and 3:23. These verses mention several rulers and give important clues about dates. Luke 3:23 indicates Jesus was about 30 years old when he started his ministry. This and the death of Herod provide the clues to narrow down the time of Jesus’ birth. So I would put Jesus’ birth at probably 2 B.C., but many scholars would say it was more like 5 or 6 B.C., maybe even 7 B.C. So this means that the astronomical events to consider must take place between 7 B.C. and 1 B.C.

Second, for an astronomical event to explain the star of Bethlehem it must be recognizable as unusual and notable to the Magi, who were very likely familiar with making observations of the stars. I think the event should be bright but it is something people could overlook if they are not aware of the stars. The event must also have been visible to the magi in their location at the right time. Astronomical events like conjunctions or comets are not visible to everyone everywhere on Earth. So the when and where becomes important.

Third, the star or astronomical event has to fit the information from Matthew 2 and Luke 2 in the New Testament. It is important to consider who the magi were. They were apparently from Persia because Matthew 2:1 says they were from the East. The Bablylonians and Persian Kings employed “wise men” also known as “magi” to be advisors to the King. The term “magi” may be connected to Zoroastrianism which had been prevalent in Persia. There were also some Jews in Persia and there were some similarities between Jewish beliefs and the Zoroastrians since the Zoroastrians were monotheists. Some Jews never returned to Israel after the end of the exile period. Daniel was treated as apparently one of this group in the early reign of Nebuchadnezzar because Nebuchadnezzar threatened to kill all the wise men (see Daniel 2). Daniel was lumped into this group but God revealed the dream of Nebuchadnezzar to Daniel and so he was able to interpret it. This saved the lives of the wise men of Babylon at that time. We get our term “magic” from the singular terms “mage” or “magus” which referred to people like the sorcerers and others in these “wise men” of Babylon. These magi were very likely familiar with observing the stars and they may have believed aspects of astrology. The Jews were not supposed to believe astrology but we can’t be sure how astrology might have influenced some of them who were exposed to those ideas. It is not impossible that there could have been Jews among the magi but I would assume the magi at the time of the birth of Jesus were Zoroastrians.

From Matthew 2:1-12 there are certain key points to notice.

  • Matthew 2:1 indicates it was after Jesus was born that the magi arrived in Jerusalem.
  • Matthew 2:2 says the magi asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (NASB).
  • The magi apparently found out the significance of Bethlehem only after Herod spoke to the Jewish priests and scribes.
  • After they left Herod and started toward Bethlehem it says “the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” (Matt. 2:9-10, NASB).
  • Matthew 2:11 says they entered a house to see Mary and the child. Then they worshiped and presented their gifts.
  • We are not told how many magi there were. They could have had some soldiers with them and a large retinue of servants and supplies.

Could it have been a supernova?

A supernova is when a star explodes. Only large stars with enough mass can explode after they use up their hydrogen fuel. The Chinese reported an object referred to as a “guest star” in 5 B.C. that some thought could be a supernova. But later astronomers came to suspect it was only a comet. It was also described by the Chinese as not very bright. This makes it an unlikely candidate for the star of Bethlehem. There were two astronomers who proposed another interesting idea in 1978 and 1998. There is a pulsar with the designation PSR 1913 + 16b. This is a binary pulsar. These objects spin rapidly and give off pulses of radiation. It was proposed that the first of the two pulsars formed in 4 B.C. from one supernova and then the second pulsar formed in 2 B.C. from a second supernova. This sounded good but other astronomers used magnetic data to argue that the pulsars have existed for about 40,000 years. This would put the supernova that formed them much earlier than 4 B.C. Also the second object is relatively small and would not have enough mass to explode in a supernova. So this idea was abandoned. Supernovas would be notable events to people who observe the stars, but there doesn’t seem to be any known supernovas in the right time range of 7 B.C. to 1 B.C.

Could it have been an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon?

This was proposed by an astronomer by the name of Michael Molnar. Molnar studied ancient coins for evidence of ancient astronomical events. He found some coins from Antioch in Syria that show a ram (Aries in the Zodiac) looking back at a star, or a crescent and a star. These coins were reportedly from the early first century A.D. This was an argument from astrology. Aries the ram was considered a symbol for Judea. Jupiter is seen as the King of the planets. So some thought a new king would be born when the Moon passed in front of Jupiter. This occultation happened twice in 6 B.C. This has been seen as matching the two events where the magi saw the star, once when they were in the East and the other when they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The first of these occultations was March 20, 6 B.C. around sunset. The second occultation would have happened April 17th, 6 B.C. at Noon. A plus for this theory is that the March/April time for it could agree with Luke’s gospel regarding shepherds feeding their flocks at night. But this would not really be notable to people unless they believed astrology regarding these events pointing to something about a King. Also the second occultation happened at Noon, when Jupiter would not be visible. So this means the magi would have to know of an occultation that could not really be seen, though the Moon itself could be seen.

Could it have been a planetary conjunction?

Multiple planetary conjunctions have been proposed for the star of Bethlehem. A conjunction is where two objects come near each other in the sky. In some cases they can even overlap, making the object appear brighter than normal. Johann Kepler suggested the star of Bethlehem could have been from a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that happened three times in 7 B.C. The three occurrences were in May 29th, Sept. 30th, and Dec. 5th that year. Astronomers have found the closest approach of Jupiter and Saturn in these events was about 1 degree. This means Jupiter and Saturn would not look like one object to the naked eye they would be separate objects. So this does not seem very notable really. Would the magi consider it important? Another question is about the later two dates, in September and December. December can be cold enough in Israel that it can snow. So there is some question whether these dates would agree with Luke. Personally I would also consider 7 B.C. too early because this would make Jesus about 36 when he began his ministry, which may not agree with Luke 3:23. (Note that there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020 that was similar to the one in 7 B.C. and the separation of the planets was one fifth of the diameter of the Moon.)

Another conjunction suggested was one of multiple objects in February of 6 B.C. This involved Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the Moon. All four objects were visible relatively near each other in the sky on Feb. 20th. The planets would have appeared separated by a few degrees, not “touching.” So, again this doesn’t seem notable enough because it was not that bright and they were separated in the sky.

Another interesting conjunction proposed is with Jupiter and Venus, which are the two brightest planets. On August 12, 3 B.C. Jupiter and Venus were rising in the East. Magi in Persia could have seen this near their eastern horizon. Then, on June 17, 2 B.C. Jupiter and Venus were setting in the West which would be good timing for the visit with Herod. In the second instance Jupiter and Venus came very close so that they would have truly appeared to the naked eye as one object. So it would combine the brightnesses of Jupiter and Venus to make a sight brighter than any planet normally is. I would consider this to be at times that would agree with Matthew 2. So this may be the astronomical event that comes closest to agreeing with Scripture. However, there is one significant problem with this. Astronomers have pointed out the second occurrence was only visible mainly in the Southern hemisphere such as South America and some of Africa. Though not all astronomers seem to agree on this, I doubt that it could have been seen from Jerusalem. But even if it could have been seen, it would be seen only very low near the Western horizon. Also, how could this guide the magi to one house where the child was? The magi had to travel South to get to Bethlehem.

So what is my opinion on the star of Bethlehem?

Below is how I reconcile the history and the Scripture about the star of Bethlehem. To me a natural astronomical event cannot explain what the Bible describes. Also, there is no need for astrological arguments with what the Bible tells us. How did the magi learn that the child would be born King of the Jews? I think the fact that this was part of their question to Herod indicates they had some knowledge of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. Or, possibly they encountered some Jews during their journey who told them about the prophecies. What they exactly understood and believed is something we can debate. God can use many things to draw people to Jesus. But in this case God used an unusual light in the sky that the magi knew was uncommon.

  1. The star was a miraculous light seen while the magi were in Persia. This would have been around the actual time of Jesus’ birth, probably in the Spring of 2 B.C. This would also coincide in time with the Luke account about Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.
  2. My speculation is that they had heard of Balaam’s prophecy from Numbers 24:17 about a star and a king coming out of Israel. This made them connect what they saw in the sky to Israel and made them expect a baby to be born king of the Jews.
  3. They did not arrive in Israel until some months after Jesus was born. So Jesus was at least a few months old, or he may have been a year or more old. When they arrived in Jerusalem they assumed that Herod would know about this child born king of the Jews, but he didn’t. So they asked where to find him. Then they found out about Bethlehem and started on their way. As they started towards Bethlehem, they saw the star again and they recognized it as like what they had seen before.
  4. After the magi visit Mary and Joseph and leave their gifts, they leave without returning to Herod. The angel then tells Joseph to leave for Egypt and Herod gives the order to kill children in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
  5. Herod’s plan fails. Then some months later, Herod dies in 1 B.C.
  6. Jesus grows up to fulfill many prophesies from the Old Testament, and be the only savior of mankind.

Merry Christmas!