One of the most frequently asked questions among skeptics, and even within the Christian community has to do with the problem of suffering. Indeed, human history is largely about crime, war, disease, and terror. Some people are born in pain and know nothing else. Mark Twain said that life is just one darn thing after another. Either the hose breaks on the washing machine and floods the basement, or a family member gets sick, or there are unforeseen financial expenses. That’s the way it goes in this imperfect world. Because of this some have concluded that there is nothing intelligent behind the universe, or else if there is a divine being out there, He is indifferent to the good and evil that occurs. The thinking of some is, If God was good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do whatever He wanted. Therefore, God lacks goodness, or power or both. Hence, the image that some have of God seems to evolve with each passing day, adjusting to whatever experiences he or she might have.
Moreover, we may try to fashion a god after our understanding of what God should be like. Some want a grandfather in heaven, who wants to see all of His creation enjoying themselves, and in the end of each day it could be said, a good time was had by all.
Atheists have not failed to note the problem. In fact, some will say that the problem of suffering is of crucial importance, because it shows that the God of popular theism does not exist. However, if something bad or something going wrong argues that God does not exist, then how about all things which are right and good? On the same basis would that not prove the existence of God? If something going wrong disproves the existence of God then something going right would prove it. Augustine put it very simply:
If there is no God, why is there so much good? If there is a God, why is there so much evil?” (The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, page 45)
However, in this paper I have to begin with this premise, what I know about God and what can be known about God must come from the Bible. Therefore, concerning the problem of evil and suffering I will develop my ideas based upon what the Bible says about it. Knowing God accurately is vital.
It is an incorrect view of scripture to say that we will always be able to comprehend what God is doing and how suffering and disappointment fit into His plan. If you believe that God is obligated to explain all that He does, you need to examine the following scriptures. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter.” Isaiah 45:15 states, “Truly you are a God who hides himself.” Isaiah 55:8-9 teaches, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Clearly we will not be able to grasp all the ways that God intervenes in this world. Therefore, there will be situations that God will allow which will not make sense to us. It is what one writer called – life’s imponderables – those things we desperately want to know about but can’t seem to figure out very well.
It is a common human experience to question where God is and what He is doing when we are suffering. Job felt this anguish and it is recorded for us in Job 23:2-9. David had similar feelings in his life (Psalm 13:1; Psalm 77:7-8). Even Jesus felt this way for a while on the cross (Mark 15:35). Probably all of us will go through a period when it seems that God has let us down. The danger is that Satan can use these moments to make us feel than we can no longer trust in God.
However, it is extremely important to look at Scripture and recognize that trials and suffering are part of the human condition. The bible is full of examples of heroes of faith that have gone through similar hardships.
Jesus even told his disciples that they should anticipate suffering in John 16:33. The apostle Peter left no doubt to the difficulties in this life when he wrote, I Peter 4:12-13.
God’s first act toward humanity was not the Exodus, nor the Cross, it was Creation. When God created, He acted freely and without compulsion. Humanity did not deserve to be created. It had no inherent right to exist. Creation was an act out of God’s own free will. Genesis describes God providing for His creatures. He provides life (Genesis 2:7). He provides a garden furnished with all things necessary for life. He provides a special tree which offers everlasting communion in the presence of God (Genesis 2:9). He tells humanity to be caretakers over all His creation (Genesis 1:28-30). Yet in this community God also gave humanity a choice. All the provisions in the garden are available except for one. God placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden and he forbade them to eat from it (Genesis 2:17). Apparently God sees some value in choice itself. Choice does provide us the opportunity for genuine free expression of love. Without freedom, there can be no real love. Without freedom, there is only a robotic coerced relationship. God does not drag us into the palace and force us to live with Him.
When you give people the power to choose there is risk involved. We can choose our own interests over the fellowship with God. The trees are not about fruit they are about fellowship. They are about life and death, a choice about life with God or life without God. It was a choice of moral dependence on God or an assertion of their own will. In other words, God will not prevent us from deciding to do evil (Romans 1:18-32).
Their rebellion brought the sentence of death and suffering upon the whole world (Genesis 3:15-19; Romans 5:12; I Corinthians 15:22). Adam and Eve as representatives of humanity rejected God’s offer of communion and asserted moral independence. Because human existence is bound together in this solidarity, when God acts against sin, even innocent children suffer. The death and sickness of children, more than any other thing, testifies that this world is not the way it is suppose to be. Genesis 3 reveals Satan as an alien evil force in God’s creation. The Devil opposes God’s purposes. He seeks to destroy the harmony of God with His creation. Therefore, there is a contest over the hearts of people.
In addition to this, the bible says that Satan can inflict illness or destroy one’s life (Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38). Whatever control the Devil has – God can limit and control it. Therefore, our prayer is to lead us not into temptation (Matthew 6:13).
Moreover, the Bible teaches that the holiness of God cannot commune with evil (Psalm 5:4). God is faithful to His promises and His threats.
Consequently, rebellion brought judgment on the world. We now live on a cursed planet, a planet where we as well as all creation cries out in pain (Romans 8:18-23). Childbirth has become a painful event. The joy of work has become toil and painful. The harmony between human beings is destroyed. Rebellion introduced hostility, pain, and death. God did not desire these things for us, but they are the consequences and the punishment for sin.
Imagine, if you will, a situation where our government passes a law abolishing all punishment from crimes. The status would still be on the books, but there would be no punishment for offenders. It would still be against the law to murder, but if he did, there would be nothing done about it. It would be against the law to steal, but there would be no punishment for thieves. Can you imagine the anarchy that would follow? All penitentiaries would be opened, jails unlocked, and courts dismissed. That would be unbearable. Transfer that thought to the spiritual realm. One sins, and instead of the consequences which would normally follow, God removes those sins and the sinner is unpunished. In such a case, man could rebel against God forever and ever and never suffer. That would totally destroy God’s plan for man. (Why Has All This Happened to Us? by W.T. Hamilton, page 49)
Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin. I had a friend die in a car accident because he was drunk. I have done funerals for people who have died because of living a promiscuous lifestyle and in the process contracted AIDS.
We drink too much or gamble compulsively or allow pornography to possess our minds. We drive too fast and work like there is no tomorrow. We challenge the boss disrespectfully and then blow up when he strikes back. We spend money we don’t have and can’t repay. We fuss and fight at home and create misery for ourselves and our families. We not only borrow trouble – we go looking for it. We toy with the dragon of infidelity. We break the laws of God and then honestly believe that we have beaten the odds. Then when the “wages” of those sins and foolishness come due, we turn our shocked faces up to heaven and cry, “Why me Lord?” In truth, we are suffering the natural consequences of dangerous behavior that is guaranteed to produce pain. (When God Doesn’t Make Sense by James Dobson, page 193)
Moreover, the bible does reveal cases where suffering is the result of our personal transgression, as in the case of Israel (Hebrews 3:7-11). Therefore, suffering is part of the gift of human freedom.
Suffering also can help to lead to repentance, because it was only after suffering and disaster that the Israelites turned back to God.
To quote C. S. Lewis:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, page 60)
Pain and suffering are frequently the means by which we become motivated to finally surrender to God and to seek comfort and hope in Christ.
At times we suffer because of the sin of others. Christians have often been persecuted because of their faith and conviction. Jesus pointed out to his disciples that such would be the case with them (John 15:18-19).
Sometimes we suffer because the laws of nature have been broken, even though they were broken unintentionally or due to matters beyond our control. God made this world and set in order various laws, like the law of gravity. Sometimes we suffer when we misuse these laws, like driving to fast, or falling off a cliff that we were climbing. To blame God under these circumstances would be like blaming Henry Ford for all of the automobile accidents, because he invented the car, or to blame the Wright brothers for all airplane crashes because they invented the airplane.
God has all power. No one can limit Him, but He can limit Himself. When God built the universe and made the laws of nature, He abides by those laws too.
I think we should be careful to refer to all suffering as God’s will. It is one thing to say that God is working His will through an event; it is quite another to say that God planned the event.
However, the Bible reveals that God’s ultimate goal for us is happiness. But not the kind that we often seek for ourselves, the self absorbed kind of happiness. The happiness that He wants to give us is to enjoy Him forever.
Meanwhile, this business of pain and suffering can be used by God to point us towards ultimate happiness.
C. S. Lewis points out one way that God can use it for our good.
No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad itself, is our own and enough for us. (The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, page 95)
God can use all of the pain and suffering to cause us to look up to Him!
He can use troubles, tribulations, and trials to generate, strengthen or refine our faith in Him (Hebrews 12:5-11; James 1:2-3) God will use the circumstances of this fallen world to accomplish His ultimate purpose. Instead of wondering, “Why me?” You may say, “What can I do with this?” What happens to us when we experience suffering or adversity may not be as important as the way we respond to it? Dentists, athletic trainers, teachers, parents all know that sometimes testing and discipline help to achieve a greater good of physical well being and moral and spiritual education. In fact, courage would be impossible in a world without pain. The apostle Paul also testified to the refining quality of suffering (Romans 5:3-4).
An additional thought concerning pain and skeptics is stated by Strobel:
If there is no Creator and therefore no moment of creation, then everything is the result of evolution. If there was no beginning or first cause, then the universe must have always existed. That means the universe has been evolving for an infinite period of time and, by now, everything should be perfect. There would have been plenty of time for evolution to have finished and evil to have been vanquished. But there is still evil and suffering and imperfection and that proves the atheist wrong about the universe. (The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, page 47)
Moreover, the final and best proof of an all loving God comes from God Himself. God participated in this suffering world by allowing His Son to put on human flesh (Philippians 2:5-8). The Christian affirmation is that far from being aloof, God participated in His suffering world and suffered as a real human being. The Gospel writers show how deeply touched Jesus was by people’s pain and grief. A major part of his earthly ministry was healing of the sick (Luke 4:18; 7:22). Furthermore, you cannot read the story of the crucifixion without thinking about the suffering and pain that both the Father and the Son felt. When suffering people talk about feeling alone and ask where God is, they should think about where God was when His Son was suffering on the cross. He was right there identifying with mankind and offering an ultimate answer to all the suffering in the world (Hebrews 2:14-18). Centuries earlier the prophet Isaiah had foretold the coming Messiah would be a suffering servant (Isaiah 53:3-6). When you are tempted to think that God does not care about pain and suffering close your eyes and picture Jesus on the cross. Why is God silent? Why doesn’t He intervene? He has. He has spoken and He has acted.
The British preacher and writer John R. W. Stott reached this conclusion concerning the suffering of Christ.
I could never my self believe in God, if it were not for the cross…. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ…is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours. (The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, page 74).
The question is not if we are going to have trouble and pain and suffering in this world. The question is “when” or “how much”? Scripture supports the premise that we can prepare for the storms of life (Matthew 7:24-29).
For those of us who are Christians we need to keep an eye on our final destination (Romans 8:18; II Corinthians 4:17). The point of our lives in this world isn’t comfort, but training and preparation for eternity.