Skeptics of Christianity have continually sought to reveal logical, historical, or even theological flaws in the foundations of the faith, especially since early in the 19th century. I do not decry nor discredit the majority of these investigations, for it is only in the testing and proving of the sword, as they say, that its qualities can be truly revealed.
A worldview (and all faiths or the-lack-thereof are worldviews) must be able to withstand thorough scrutiny. In the framework of another analogy: the hammers of skepticism have repeatedly and vigorously beat upon the anvil of truth, and over time, we see the hammers broken, shattered, yet what of the anvil? It remains, fundamentally unchanged, having earned the respect of its opponents, and the confidence of its multiplied seekers.
Among the more common challenges leveled against faith in God (in general) and Jesus Christ (in particular) center around a highly subjective and emotional (yet important) question:
"How can a God that is all-powerful and loving, allow evil, pain, and suffering in the world?"
All of us, believers or not, have probably wrestled with this deep question at one time or another. Many Christians, unfortunately, seem at a loss to respond to this challenge, but it is crucial to remember that one’s inability to completely satisfy the question does not mean that Christianity itself does not offer real solutions, and it certainly does not imply that there are no answers. For a clarifying analogy, let’s consider modern science.
Scientists struggle to explain everyday phenomena such as the fundamental nature of light or gravity, yet, we don't discard the science surrounding these realities, and we certainly don’t reject the research as completely worthless or invalid. Scientists have developed well-supported models that seem to explain most of the common questions about these issues.
But, concerning the problematic areas that do not fit neatly into these models, we realize that there are answers, though we may not have all those answers...yet. The same may be true regarding the issue of God and suffering. Are there good models offering real solutions? Absolutely. Are there specific areas that we still struggle with? Absolutely.
As with any theological question with emotionally-charged consequences, we need to separate two very different aspects of the problem: The first is the intellectual challenge, which is usually framed as:
“HOW could an all-good, all-powerful God and very real evil/suffering co-exist in this world?”
Resolving this intellectual question typically involves using philosophy and carefully constructed logical arguments. But most people aren’t interested in philosophy, and fewer yet have the patience and background needed to dissect logical constructs. Most people are far more concerned with the second aspect of this issue: the emotional challenge.
If the intellectual challenge revolves around the word ‘HOW’, then the emotional challenge centers upon the word ‘WHY.’ This perspective could best be summed up with a simple question:
“WHY does an all-powerful, all-good God allow suffering and evil?”
For most inquirers, that is the real question. For them, it's the WHY and not the HOW that matters. We all struggle with the WHY questions in life, "Why didn't I get that promotion? Why doesn't she love me like I love her? Why did my friend commit suicide?" The list goes on and on, as does our incredulity.
With these two very different perspectives in mind, let's consider ten different possible solutions to this difficult and emotionally-charged question. Three of these models primarily focus on the intellectual problem of God and evil, and the remainder offer satisfying emotional justifications for the existence of suffering in a universe created by an all-good God.
1. The Creator’s ways are higher than our understanding.
In reference to His dealings with mankind, God clearly states:
“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.” (Isaiah 55:8,9)
Simply put, it is not possible that we (as finite, created beings) could necessarily understand all that an infinite God “thinks” or does. This is simple to demonstrate, evidenced by the fact that God created the complex human brain, with its 100 billion neurons, that we use to contemplate these tough questions. Therefore, He must be nearly infinitely higher than our ability to comprehend.
To illustrate this, think about a young toddler stumbling across the living room, his attention fixated on a small, shiny razor blade laying on a coffee table nearby. His father sees this dangerous attraction, and just as the excited youngster reaches the “toy”, the caring adult intervenes, removes the object, and lovingly swats at the hand of the child, following it up with a firm “No! No!” In predictable fashion, the toddler protests with loud wails and crocodile tears, no doubt completely confused at the sudden contradiction from loving daddy to evil killjoy.
Just as the immature understanding of the toddler’s mind cannot even begin to fathom all the consequences his innocent action (which the parent, though, does understand), our minds and our ability to comprehend difficult questions cannot even begin to compare with God’s understanding. Just as the young child cannot fully understand the reasons that the parent has for such supposedly harsh actions, likewise humanity, in a child-like role in comparison to the Creator, may not be able to fully reconcile God’s reasons for allowing events or conditions that we may consider contradictory.
Setting aside this analogy about differences in understanding for a moment, we also have another disadvantage when it comes to wrestling with this issue. To put it simply, we are too limited, and our lives too short to actually and accurately see the “big picture.” With our limited exposure to the total mass of humanity, and since our life spans are insignificant compared to all of human history, we are incapable of rendering a sufficient judgment about the reasonableness of suffering or evil.
Looking at it logically, since God is dealing in a far bigger picture than just one person's life, or even an entire nation of people, and He is working across a longer time frame than one person's life span, then His ways, almost by default, will seem to be mysterious or even, at times, appear contradictory.
But the truth is, we don’t always have to understand something in order to accept it. Consider gravity, not one physicist in a thousand will say that they understand the real nature or mechanism of gravity. But we all accept (and even expect) that when we drop a rock, it will (almost always) fall down to the ground. Gravity. Do we understand it? No. Do we accept it? Yes.
Now translate that same perspective over to a spiritual example: consider Jesus Christ dying on the cross for our sins. Even His disciples did not understand why He had to die, and the apostle Peter even tried to prevent it. They were perplexed and disillusioned, but afterward, they understood that the tragedy of Jesus' unjust crucifixion was for our good, for our salvation.
Jesus said: "What I am doing now, you do not understand, but you will know after this." (John 13:7) On this side of eternity, we may not understand all of God's allowances and dealings, but it stands to reason that He may reveal His wisdom after this short time here. It is an issue of basic trust, as the distressed patriarch Abraham proclaimed as he contemplated God’s difficult dealings: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?”
2. We would understand the reasons for suffering, if we had all the information.
Though similar to our first answer, this explanation is fundamentally different. Whereas the first solution revolved around God’s ultimate PURPOSES in allowing suffering, this explanation involves, at it’s heart, our limited appreciation of specific reasons for suffering or evil. What may seem unjust or bad to us, may only seem that way because we do not have all the information about that event or condition.
An example from last century may help. If someone (who knew nothing about World War II) was to read about Harry Truman authorizing the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nothing else, they might conclude that the US President was a sadistic and truly evil man, and the bombings unprovoked and unjustified.
But, if they understood, in the light of the fact that the US was engaged in the throes of World War II, and that the best estimates of a land invasion of the Japanese homeland would result in multiplied millions of deaths on both sides of the conflict, then a different understanding of the action would be realized. What at first appeared to be unprovoked evil was soon understood to actually be a type of mercy. The bombings, which caused loss of life, were intended to (and more than likely did) lessen the loss of life and minimize suffering.
Consider cancer surgery. Why do people allow a surgeon to cut open and invade their bodies, even carving out entire sections of their brains, livers, or lungs? This will surely result in much suffering and pain, and even loss of function. Why do we allow it? Answer: for the greater good. The cancer may threaten our very lives, but yet, by this painful and difficult decision of surgery, it may cure the condition, or prolong life, or at least prolong quality of life.
But if you walked into an operating room and saw a surgeon with a large scalpel about to slice into what appeared to be an unconscious and helpless victim, you might think that the doctor was a sadistic killer. But, with the understanding that there is a greater good that can be brought out of this painful event, we realize that some suffering is not only warranted, but can actually be for our own good.
Christian apologist and philosopher, Michael Horner, commented about the problem of God and suffering: "It may be too complicated, or, more than likely, we are lacking crucial information that is available to an all knowing God. Therefore, merely because we can't think of a good reason why a particular evil should be allowed, it does not follow that God does not have a good reason, nor does it follow that we are irrational in believing God has a good reason."
Another good example can be found in the Bible in the life of Joseph. His jealous brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph suffered greatly in his slavery and eventual, wrongful imprisonment. But later, through the providence of God, Joseph provided the key wisdom needed to help Egypt survive a multi-year famine, and indirectly saved many other peoples, including his own brothers who had earlier plotted against him. When Joseph confronted them, he was forgiving and declared: "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:15-21). If someone had stopped reading the account too early, they would have wondered “Why is God letting his faithful servant Joseph suffer so unjustly?” But, once all the facts are in, we marvel at God’s timing, wisdom, and His ability to redeem even the most painful of events.
3. We live in a fallen world cursed because of sin.
This is usually the first generic type of answer that most offer when the question of God and suffering comes up. And though it is sound intellectually and can even be proven experientially, it is an emotionally unsatisfying answer. Let’s restate the premise from a different perspective: We live in a world that is in rebellion against it’s own Creator, therefore, we would expect events and circumstances to be at odds with our sense of the way things ought to be. In other words, things aren’t right, because WE aren’t right in our relationship to our Creator.
One does not have to look too far to realize that the universe (generally) and this planet (specifically) is not the perfect place it once was in the beginning. Violence, wars, sickness, suffering, hatred, tragedy, and ultimately death are external witnesses to an undeniable inward realization that something is wrong, very wrong. There is an abiding and universal understanding that we were never meant to have to stand by the casket of a deceased loved one, or witness the abuse of innocent children, or to feel the emotional pain of a society filled with racism, cruelty, or indifference.
We feel the sting of injustice, and we know that some things are just not right. Phrases such as “It just isn’t fair” or “But that’s not right” are found in every language, every culture. The concepts of morality, of right and wrong, inexplicable by evolutionary models, are universally experienced. Universal effects are the result of universal causes.
Imagine a classroom filled with men and women, all ‘devout’ atheists. At the end of the course the instructor stands before the class and announces: “I have posted your final grades, but there is no need to look at the roster. All women get an ‘A,’ and all the men get an ‘F.’” A sense of indignation and injustice would, no doubt, manifest in the minds of all of the men present. “But, wait, that’s wrong, that’s not fair!” one of the gentlemen would protest. The wise professor would turn to the enraged student and say: “I’m sorry, sir, your complaint is illogical, because right and wrong, fair or unfair, cannot exist in a universe with no God.” The teacher is correct. But, whether convinced atheist or committed Christian, universally we find a fundamental law of morality, not identical between all cultures, but foundationally similar.
Just as the fruit of the apple tree can be traced all the way back to its tiny seed, to understand the modern fruit of evil and suffering, as well as the common sense of morality we all share, we must also go back to the beginning, the origin.
The Bible repeatedly decrees that when God had first made the cosmos, He declared that everything was “good” and even “very good.” The scripture records that there was no death, no pain, no suffering, no animosity, no injustice. Our original parents were placed in an environment that was perfectly suited to them, and they to it, but more importantly, they existed in a state of perfect relationship with their Creator. Mankind was given the privilege and responsibility by God to be the caretakers, the superintendents if you will, of God’s physical creation.
But something went terribly wrong.
The ability to have a sincere and real relationship with mankind required God to create something even more amazing than massive galaxies or minute strands of DNA. For there to be true love and a willing relationship, God had to give mankind a FREE WILL. Without free will, the obedience and love of mankind would have been an illusion, a hollow drama with only the appearance of substance. A logical consequence of the gift of free will is the possibility of rebellion, of rejection, of disobedience…of sin. Unfortunately the possibility turned to reality, and the rest is, as they say, history. Mankind abused its free will and turned against the Creator.
Even the critics of Christianity admit that the presence of sin and evil in the world are verifiable and undeniable realities. Strangely enough, evil in the world is one of the strongest arguments for both the reality of God and the truth of Christianity. Bertrand Russell, one of the foremost opponents of Christianity in the 20th century espoused what is called the “Correspondence Theory of Truth.” This logical argument states that, for something to be TRUE, it must CORRESPOND to what we actually observe in the world. Ironically, Bertrand’s pet axiom can be used to help verify the faith that he despised.
Since God placed mankind as the custodians of His creation, and we rebelled against Him, He has allowed suffering and tragedy into His creation as proof, evidence that something is indeed wrong...and that something is US. We are all in a state of open rebellion against the God Who created us, Who desires for us to know Him the way mankind once did. God promised, from the very beginning, that disobedience would lead to horrible consequences, and eventually death. Not only us, but all of God’s created natural order, was placed under God’s judgment.
Therefore, suffering and evil are the inescapable results of our rebellion against the good God Who created us. Instead of allowing us to have the illusion that everything is still “OK,” God gave us continual reminders that we are not right, and that we are under the condemnation of our own evil.
4. Suffering is often the best way to cause us to seek after God.
Comfort and pleasure are rarely the motivating factors that move people to evaluate their lives and turn back to God. Indeed, ease and prosperity often cause people to live lives indifferent to (and even hardened against) God. In the “good times” we can often become arrogant and self-sufficient, not realizing that the purpose in life is not about gathering up things, but about having a relationship with the Creator Who made us and loves us.
When is the last time you met someone who had become a Christian because they had won the lottery, or had landed that dream job, or found that perfect spouse? Probably never. But, often the rule rather than the exception, are those who have found Christ in the midst of suffering, tragedy, or heartache. Pain and tragedy have a way of getting our attention far better than blessing or comfort. And this is unfortunate. We should turn to the Lord because of His goodness and blessing, but instead, like the unthankful prodigal son, we arrogantly take God's gifts without honoring the One Who gave them, and go on our merry ways.
But when did the prodigal son realize the true situation, and make things right with his father (a picture of the sinner being reconciled to God)? It was not when he was partying and ‘living it up,’ it was when he had lost everything, and was suffering. The suffering was a justifiable way to bring him (representing us as sinners) back to the father (representing God). Just as God does not like to see us suffer, the father of the prodigal son felt no joy from hearing about his son's horrible lifestyle, but the repentance and reunion brought on by the suffering made the suffering (which was for only a short time) worth it eternally.
Have you ever heard an alarm clock that used soothing and soft sounds to waken it’s owners? What about tornado or fire alarms, do they use gentle methods to create awareness? No. Alarms use loud, harsh, even annoying sounds or flashes to gain our attention. Why? Because often that is what it takes to get us to “wake up,” to become aware of the actual danger around us that we are either ignoring or indifferent to. If we, as mere people know this, then surely the Creator of the universe knows that unpleasant things are far faster ways of getting our attention, evidently far more efficient than comfort, pleasure, or prosperity. If it is for our good, then God in His love and care, will allow us to be inconvenienced, if it can or will cause us to quit ignoring Him, and to even seek Him out.
This solution also applies to the suffering experienced by God’s people. Born-again Christians are not immune from the trials and tragedies of life. Earlier we spoke of the value of suffering in causing a person to realize their need for a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, but what of those already saved? The apostle Peter grants us valuable insight when he shared this about why Christians suffer:
“…you have suffered in various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith…may be found…”
(I Peter 4:6,7)
Also, the apostle Paul encourages us with these words:
“…but we also glory in trials, knowing that trials produce perseverance; and perseverance (produces) character; and character (produces) hope.”
In a very real sense, sufferings tend to produce faith, or better, tend to produce trust in God. For those who do not know Him as Lord and Savior, sufferings drive them to seek Him out. For those who are saved, trials should cause them to lean on Him more, to trust Him for the strength to persevere, which leads to maturity and growth.
5. Tragedy and disasters do not increase the amount of death in the world.
At first glance, that statement seems ridiculous. Earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis--multiplied millions have died due to their destructive effects. But think about it, every person will die at one time or another. Death is still at the same rate it has always been...one death per person. It is just shocking or jolting to us when we hear of or see tragedies, perhaps because it is so many deaths in such a short time. But most people aren't aware that each day about 160,000 people die in the world, mostly due to illness or accident. Setting aside huge disasters, such as earthquakes, we still lose 160,000 people EVERY DAY. That's over a million per week. Disasters do not increase the amount of death, it is still one per person.
Admittedly, this answer is not actually a direct solution to the question at hand of God and suffering. But the inevitable fallout of large disasters is the predictable tirade of skeptics who use these events as a platform to launch fresh attacks against the character of God. But, regardless of the emotional pleas, natural or unnatural disasters do not increase the amount of death in the world.
6. The reality of death is a great motivator for spiritual action.
It is an odd thing with the human race---they say that one of the only two certain things in this world is death (the other being taxes). And yet, most people live their lives in complete denial of their own eventual death, they avoid coming to terms with their own mortality. Since every person will die one day, and since the real purpose in life is to come to a personal relationship with our Creator, then if God can use death as a way of causing people to think about their own mortality, then even death can turn out for good.
It was the tragic death of my very young cousin that caused my oldest brother to consider his own mortality, and this contemplation led him to turn his life over to Jesus Christ. Every person will die one day, so if God can take that death and turn it into an opportunity for someone else to look at their own spiritual condition, then even death can be a blessing.
Think of organ donors...their death is a tragedy, but the gift of their healthy organs can mean life for someone else. This can also be true spiritually, in a way. Coming face to face with the reality of someone else’s death may cause us to find spiritual life. Death is, unfortunately, a teacher like no other. His lessons are inescapable, his conclusions undeniable. Neither I nor God says that death is (in itself) good. But God is so powerful and His wisdom so complete, that He can even take that which is evil and cause it to bring forth blessing.
7. Tragedies allow opportunities for God to show His love and kindness through His people.
There is an old expression: “God is good, all the time.” Even though we should see the good times of life as direct evidence of the goodness of God, honestly, most of the time we don't. Often, it is when hard times, suffering, pain, or tragedies come, that we see and realize the goodness of God demonstrated through His people. The Salvation Army, Samaritan's Purse, Operation Blessing, World Vision, and many hundreds of other Christian relief organizations exist to demonstrate God's love and care in the very center of need and tragedy.
Untold millions have found a personal relationship with Jesus Christ after coming face-to-face with the compassion of God revealed in the physical presence of a Christian relief worker or missionary. Many countries that do not allow religious liberties or missionaries, will open the door to Christian relief workers during times of crisis and suffering. God can use these opportunities to get His gospel into these hard to reach places of the earth. In some places in the world, the only Christians some could ever hope to meet will be representatives of Christian relief agencies.
God, though He is in control of all, often humbles Himself to work His compassion through people. Sometimes He can even work through those who care nothing for Him. There is the story that is told of a destitute widow woman who was praying aloud to God in her apartment. She besought the Lord to provide just enough food for her to survive. Unknown to her, an atheist from the apartment next door overheard her cry to God. The unbeliever went to the store and bought several bags of groceries and placed them at her door and rang the doorbell. The widow opened the door, and seeing only the food, immediately fell to her knees and said: “Thank you, Lord, for my answered prayer!” Just then, the atheist jumped out of hiding and scoffed: “God didn’t provide you that food---ha, ha, it was me. I bought it and put it here!” The woman then looked up and said: “And, Lord, not only did you provide…you got the devil to pay for it!”
8. Tragedies can motivate Christians to fulfill God's purpose in their lives.
There is a funny (and sadly, too true) song from back in the early 90’s that said: "Lord, please don't send me to Africa, I don't think I've got what it takes.” It goes on to remark: “I love my life here in suburbia." This chilling observation of lukewarm Christianity reprimands us for our lack of compassion and rebukes us for failing to get outside of our neat little lives and share the love of God. I know of hundreds of fellow Christians who have been emotionally moved by the awareness of the suffering of others, and who have left "suburbia" to visit the sad, the needy, and the desperate places of the earth to demonstrate God's love.
As followers of Christ, we should be reaching out daily to those around us, but we get caught up in the illusion of comfort and the danger of complacency, and we become jaded to the real needs in this world. There are many passages of God’s word that encourage us to go to “the ends of the world” to help our fellow man. But, sadly, most of us have a hard time just walking across the street to help a neighbor in need, much less to travel across the world. But sudden tragedies can be powerful wakeup calls to fulfill our reasonable service for our God and Savior.
Let’s be clear: we are NOT saved BY our good works, but the Bible says that, if we are truly saved, if we really do have Christ dwelling within, it will be evidenced by His works in and through us. If it takes suffering to get God’s people to reach out with His love, then we can see that suffering can indeed, be justified.
9. To stop all evil and suffering, God may have to deny us our free will.
For our final two solutions, we turn the discussion to intellectual, logical answers to the problem of God and suffering. Consider a searching question: What causes most human suffering? Is it really earthquakes or tsunamis? No. Most of the evil in this world is in the daily interaction of people toward other people. Therefore, since most human suffering and evil in the world is due to the greed and wickedness of people toward each other (murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, racism, etc.) then, to stop all suffering, God would have to deny us our free will.
Are you ready for Him to do that?
God created us with the ability to choose and make decisions, to create, to destroy, to love, and, to hate. We can accept God's gift of salvation, or we can reject it. We can help our fellow man, or we can take advantage of him. In order to have a true, free will in this world, the possibility must exist for rebellion and sin. We are not robots, merely automatons that can only repeat a carefully programmed mantra: "God I love you.” (repeat)
Freedom is a precious thing, indeed, people have died so that we can enjoy it. Even Jesus died for our freedom, so that we could have the opportunity to come to know the forgiveness and salvation of God. Most suffering is caused by the sin of people towards each other, and not just horrific evil such as Hitler, Stalin, or Osama Bin Laden, but also the multitudes of small and hurtful injustices we all commit toward each other, even daily. Racism, unkindness, envy, lying, and greed, all necesssarily lead to tragedy and suffering. To price to prevent all of this comes at the infinite cost of our freedom of will.
10. It may not be logically possible to have a universe without suffering.
Some would argue: "But couldn't God create a world that does not allow for the possibility of evil and suffering?" The answer is surprising...but then again, maybe not. Even the atheist philosopher Evan Fales admits, "Not even an omnipotent being can guarantee the best of all possible worlds, for if such a world must contain created free beings, it will be partly up to them what transpires." To say that God is all-powerful does not mean that everything imaginable is possible. God cannot make Himself not exist. God cannot sin. God cannot make a round square.
As the renowned philosopher and college campus speaker, Michael Horner, explained: "It is entirely possible that it is not within God's power to create a world containing moral good without that world also containing moral evil. When free moral agents are involved it is entirely possible that a good end could not be achieved in any other way."
Some skeptics attempt to put the challenge this way:
1. An all-good God and evil cannot co-exist.
2. Yet evil exists.
3. Therefore, an all-good God does not exist.
As we have seen, even dedicated atheists, such as Evan Fales, deny this challenge as being illogical. The missing piece of the puzzle is the reality of free will. As the recent commercial slogan puts it: "This changes everything." And, indeed, our free will is the game changer in this debate. We could put the logical statements in this order instead:
1. An all-good God created everything.
2. Free will exists.
3. Therefore, evil is possible because of free will.
And since human-to-human evil is the primary cause of suffering and tragedy, as demonstrated earlier, then we see that our free will, and not God's lack of ability (or His supposed non-existence) is the primary culprit.
The perplexing problem of God and suffering is a difficult one. It involves, not just logical or intellectual issues, but deep-seated and troubling emotional ramifications. This short treatise is not meant to be the final word on this topic. Rather, it is set forth as a demonstration of the earlier premise of this discussion, namely that a valid worldview: (1) must be able to provide real answers. (2) it must “correspond to the truth” of actual human experience, and, finally (3) it must be able to withstand rigorous criticism and investigation.
When it comes to the issue of resolving the difficult problem of God and suffering, even the small sample of solutions presented here substantiate all three of these basic conditions.
These solutions have shown, that what at first appeared to be a serious challenge, rather serves to validate the claims of Christianity instead of casting doubt upon them. They have revealed that the existence of evil does not contradict the existence of God, but rather provides verification of free will and of the consequences of sin as recorded in the Bible. They have demonstrated that suffering, instead of being a challenge against the character of God and His love, provides the backdrop against which God can not only demonstrate His care through His people, but also draw people to Himself for salvation. They have shown that suffering can even be a mechanism to drive growth and maturity, and that evil may be unavoidable in a perfect universe containing free will.
To sum it up, former atheist and famous Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis proclaimed:
“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”.