This is one of those subjects where it sounds like Christians are talking a different language from everyone else. Christians say things like: 'God is good,' or, 'God is love,' while everyone else around us is saying the He is cruel, mean and vindictive.
Last Thursday, I was talking with a man here, and he asked me a question. "Why did God take my mother at the age of forty?" What he was asking, in a nicer way, was: why did God kill my mother? There was more to it, of course. As he saw things, his whole life had been destroyed by his mother's death - all his problems, and as a homeless alcoholic he had a good number, all his problems arose out of his mother's death.
He was asking me to justify the actions of a monster who had killed his mother and wrecked his own life from that moment onwards. Over the years, I have talked with many people who have asked that same question. Something bad happens, and they want to know: why did God do it, or why did He allow it to happen?
This is not just an academic question. It is not asked out of idle curiosity. Most of the time, people who ask it genuinely need to have some kind of answer. I would expect quite a number of people here have that same need.
I have some good news for you, and some bad news. The good news is: there is an answer. The bad news: it's not an easy one.
When I was a lad, there were two kinds of comics in the shops. There were the traditional English comics. They had stories about soldiers doing daring things in the Second World War, or young boys with catapults and pea-shooters.
And then there were the American comics, with stories about amazing people with special powers. Do you remember any of these people? Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men...
Did you ever wonder about all these super powers the heroes had, and wonder if they would ever run out of new powers to invent? And then, to make the stories interesting, the writers had to invent all kinds of super-villains with powers of their own, to make life difficult for the super-heroes.
In all those stories, with all the amazing powers these people had, there is one power which never ever featured. Can you guess what it was?
There was never a story where the hero - or the villain - could make other people do what they wanted. Of course not! You wouldn't be left with much of a story, would you? The villains would not pose much of a threat if they could only do what the hero wanted. Even natural disasters would not pose much of a problem if everybody worked together in a halfway sensible way.
The reason why you had any story to read was because, whatever the powers the hero had, there were still other people in the story with their own wishes, desires and plans. Sometimes these other people helped, and sometimes they got in the way, and that is what those stories were about. It is what every story, true or fiction, is about.
What I'm saying is this. The people who wrote these comic books had a better grasp of truth than many theologians. Like the comic books, the Bible is full of stories of people with lots of different motives and plans. Sometimes they co-operate with each other, and sometimes they fight. Sometimes their plans work out, and sometimes they fail. That is the way things are.
There is another way in which the comic books reflect real life. In the comics, you always have the good guys and the bad guys. The conflict between these two groups drives most of the stories, one way or another. In real life, we don't see the battle lines drawn up between the good guys and the bad guys in the same clear way, but the fight is still going on.
I want to come back to this point - but where have we got to so far? God is good, because although He is powerful, He is not all-powerful. He made us to be free, and the decisions we make affect our lives and the lives of many other people. We are free to poison our bodies and destroy our families. We are free to create unjust trade agreements which result in babies starving to death. We cannot blame God for our decisions.
So one thing we need to face up to is our own responsibility for the way we live, and the effect we have on other people.
The other thing we have to face up to is the reality of evil. The Bible teaches us quite clearly that there is power at work in the world which is seeking to destroy us. There is a power at work which delights in causing pain, misery and despair. Have bad things happened to you? Have you suffered, unfairly at times? Of course you have. That is the way the world is. That is the nature of evil.
God is good. But the world He made has been corrupted and polluted. The people He made have turned against Him.
Because the truth is that we are not neutral onlookers. We don't stand back like the ordinary people in the comic books, and watch God and the Devil slug it out in a cosmic fist-fight. The battle does not take place out there - it takes place in here. Inside each one of us. And the fact of the matter is, we start off on the wrong side.
No-one had to teach us how to be mean and self-centered. We did not need to learn how to get what we want through lies and deception. It's natural. We hurt other people to get what we want, and then we are outraged when other people hurt us to get what they want.
There are only two sides. The basic question for each one of us is: which side are you on? And if that is a difficult question, here's an easier one: who is in control?
Who is in control of your life? Because someone is in control, and if it's not God, you know what the alternative is.
There is a lie going round that you can become a Christian and keep living the way you did before. There are many people in the churches who believe this. But it is not true, and I'll tell you how I know.
I know what God is like, not because I have some special, mystical inner knowledge, but because God has revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. If you are not sure about that, I can talk with you afterwards, but in summary, over the past two thousand years, nobody has been able to explain the things Jesus said and did unless God was present in His life in a special and unique way.
And Jesus taught people that the way for them to get onto God's side was to follow Him. They had to stop living the way they had been, and start living the way he taught - the way He lived. They had to stop living for themselves, and start living the way He did, loving and helping the people around them.
Living like this is not easy - in fact, it seems quite impossible at times. But if we are prepared to allow Him control of our lives, Jesus promises to help us live in a way that demonstrates His teachings are true and His power over sin and death is real.
God is good - do we want to be on His side? That is the real question.
For a moment can you consider that God may have spoken to us through Jesus as is revealed in the bible?