Bob and Gretchen Passantino, ©Copyright 1997
Each of us has watched a loved one die, been the victim of a crime, lived among the poverty-stricken, or in some way been confronted with the reality of suffering. Human history sometimes seems like one long chronicle of suffering and despair. In the midst of suffering we cry out,
Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of the soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure. . . . For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil. [Job 3:20-21, 24-26]
Why is there suffering? Why are the innocent victimized? Is there purpose in pain? Is there any escape? For the Christian, who believes that God is all-good and all-powerful, answers to these questions are especially important.
Skeptics frequently challenge Christians with the problem of a good God allowing suffering. Usually their argument says, “If God is all-powerful, he could prevent or eliminate suffering. If God is all-good, he would not want his creation to suffer. Since you say God is both, suffering should not exist. In fact, however, we see suffering all around us and experience it ourselves. Therefore, God doesn’t exist, or he’s not all-powerful, or he’s not all-good.”
First, we need to distinguish between philosophical and personal engagement with suffering. When someone is in the midst of anguish, all the logic and truth in the world is incomplete without a demonstration of compassionate love. Answers are not merely conclusions of mental exercises, they should have consequences in our lives.
Second, we need to consider the consequences of accepting the skeptic’s alternatives: Suffering proves that God does not exist, or He is not all-powerful, or He is not all-good. If God does not exist, then all of existence, including our suffering, has no enduring value, purpose, or goal. If God is not all-powerful, then we have no hope that suffering will ever be eliminated. If God is not all-good, then to pain and despair we must add the threat of immanent divine sadism. Each of these alternatives is at least as problematic as the Christian alternative, so the skeptic has merely exchanged one answer he doesn’t like for others equally unpleasant. The skeptic has not solved the problem of suffering merely by refusing to solve it. We should judge answers by truth, not emotion.
Third, we need to understand that many problems with theology come from problems with personal world views and values. For example, the pleasure of helping someone who is needy has absolutely no value to the person to whom self-indulgence is the highest good. Many people struggle with the problem of God and suffering because they reject a Christian world view. Avoiding suffering has become preferable to learning patience; immediate gratification means more than self-discipline; self-gratification is more important than sharing; and physical pleasure is superior to spiritual joy.
Fourth, the skeptic assumes parts of the Christian world view in order to indict the Christian God, but he is unwilling to acknowledge the other parts of the Christian world view that answer his indictments. He assumes a standard of “good” that is absolute and eternal (and, therefore, cannot have its source in changing, finite humans), but denies the existence of the absolute and eternal.
In a non-theistic world where values are social conventions, survival mechanisms, majority opinions, or assertions of the most powerful, there can be no absolute, eternal values. “Good” as a social convention is merely what a society declares to be good; in one society it might be eating one’s enemies, in another it may be loving one’s enemies. “Good” as a survival mechanism could include killing off imperfect, non-productive members of the species, such those with less than average intelligence or poor eyesight, or restricting reproduction to the physical and mental elite; etc. If the skeptic wants to borrow the Christian definition of values as absolute and eternal, then he can’t reject the Christian explanation of suffering which is consistent with such values.
If the Christian world view is considered, there are a variety of approaches to the question of God and suffering. Biblical convictions include (1) suffering does not originate with God and will be eliminated at some point; (2) God works good in the midst of suffering; (3) not all pain is suffering in the moral sense; (4) and physical, transient suffering and death are relatively inconsequential compared to spiritual, eternal suffering and death.
God is all-powerful, meaning He can accomplish anything that can be accomplished with power. He cannot use power to do “non-power” kinds of things, such as the logically impossible. He cannot make two plus two equal five, violate His unchangeable nature, make Himself go out of existence and come back into existence, and He cannot make morally responsible persons without allowing for the possibility of those persons making wrong choices. The Bible says that suffering is the consequence of the wrong choice (sin) of morally responsible persons. If God always prevented people from sinning, or always prevented the consequences of sin, then human goodness would be mere programming, not true goodness. We do not pat a computer on its head when it executes its program — it is a determined function, not an exercise of moral responsibility. Suffering, the consequence of human sin, is not caused by God, but by the sin of persons with moral responsibility. Also, God has not abandoned the world to eternally suffer the consequences of sin. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to provide ultimate freedom from the consequences of sin. It is wrong to indict God because suffering is not yet eliminated, just as it would be wrong to indict a doctor who treats a gunshot wound he didn’t cause, simply because the wound is not healed instantly.
Our assurance that God will eliminate suffering is not the only comfort God gives us. While God did not cause suffering, he has given it purpose. It became the vehicle for our salvation when “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Complete avoidance of suffering is not an option for any of us. Our option is to waste our experience or realize God’s purposes in the midst of suffering. Through suffering we can learn patience, self-discipline, trust, and many other “virtues.” When we suffer we can experience the love, compassion, and self-denial of those who help us. When we help someone who is suffering, we find significance in our own lives as well.
Not all pain is “bad” in the moral sense. God created us with nerve endings that use pain to protect us. Pain keeps us from burning our hands in a campfire, bending our legs back until the joint breaks, neglecting nourishment until we starve, etc. Suffering can also be a direct, just consequence of our own actions. Our sense of justice says that it is “good” when an exploiter loses his friends, even though loneliness is “painful.” It is good when a mugger is locked up, even though he “suffers” the loss of his freedom.
All humans have a moral conscience, even corrupted by sin and often ignored. Our conscience should not rejoice in sin, suffering, and death. When we see innocents suffering, we should experience moral outrage and seek to rescue the sufferer. When we see someone suffer death, we should experience loss and sorrow. Sin, suffering, and death are not the destinies for which God created us. He created us to enjoy perfect, good, loving fellowship with Him for eternity. Despite our moral betrayal, he continues to offer eternal life.
The skeptic has it partly right — suffering should offend our sense of goodness and justice. Sadly, he misses the rest of the argument: Because suffering violates goodness and justice, there must be an all-good, all-powerful God whose remedy restores the perfection he created. This is the hope that the Christian offers in the midst of suffering:
I consider the that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. [Romans 8:8]
Suffering and death in this sinful world are not without remedy. The only reasonable response to the existence of suffering is confidence in God’s promises for eternity:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 5:3-10]