Why does God allow suffering?

A Crisis of Faith

This is the bind in which Christians seem to find themselves:

If God is all-powerful, He could do something about suffering, but suffering persists, so God does not love us enough to prevent or end it. Such an uncaring God is not worthy of our unconditional love.

If God is all-loving, He would do something about suffering, but suffering persists, so God is not powerful enough to prevent or end it. Such a weak God is not worthy of our honour and respect.

We could insist that God needs no defence, but as a person of faith, I am struck by the willingness of Scripture to confront the issue head on. Consider just two examples:

  • The Book of Job wrestles with the problem of suffering. Job loses his property, children and health. Job’s “friends” think no one is to blame but Job. His wife tells him to curse God and die. Even Job’s faith begins to waver.
  • The Gospels portray Jesus as an innocent man who is falsely accused, beaten to a bloody pulp, and made to die an excruciating death on a Roman cross. His suffering occupies centre stage in the Christian story of redemption (John 3:16).

In both cases, God allows it all to happen (Job 1:9-12; Luke 24:25-27). If the Bible were silent on the issue, we might try to shrug our shoulders and walk away. But it is not, and so we owe ourselves and our critics an answer (1 Peter 3:15).

In what follows, I am going to use a lot of Scripture. Why should atheists listen to what is going to sound a lot like a sermon?

Atheists think the problem of suffering comes down to two incompatible claims of faith: (1) there exists a God who is all-good and all-powerful; and (2), the world is burdened by suffering. If the problem is internal to my faith, then I am going to have to appeal to the source of that faith, the Bible (Romans 10:17).

Having said that, I am not asking the atheist to believe that the Bible is true or inspired. This is an incredibly important point. I have witnessed these discussions in numerous undergraduate philosophy classes. The lecturer will present a handful of arguments that theists have made through the centuries (none of which I will use here). Students will try to quote Scripture or appeal to general Christian principles. The lecturer will immediately shut them down. “But I don’t believe your Bible,” she will remind them. “And besides, this is a philosophy class, not a theology class. Save that stuff for Sunday School.”

This may explain why Christians walk away frustrated but ultimately unconvinced by atheism’s “best” argument. They know what their Bible has to say about the mess we are in, and what God is doing to get us out of it (e.g., Romans 5:12-18; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Telling them that they cannot use the Bible in their own defence seems like cheating.

Also, the most popular version of the argument is not all that convincing. If we pair off “God” with “lots of suffering” it is hard to see the logical inconsistency. I mean, it is not like saying “Everyone has left the room” and “Someone is still in the room.”

Careful atheists will argue that the quantity of suffering we see in the world makes God’s existence unlikely, not impossible. This is a weaker argument against God, but one that still needs an answer. How can the Christian respond?

1. God is Sovereign

We are mistaken if we think…

  • God has to give an account to us.
  • God has to justify every moment of suffering.
  • we can accuse God of being unfair.

He is sovereign Lord of the universe. He has the complete picture. We do not.

Case Study: The Book of Job

Job accuses God of…

  • judging him falsely (9:20),
  • wronging him (19:6),
  • persecuting him (19:22),
  • not judging the wicked (24:1-12), and
  • ignoring all his good works (30-32).

Elihu hears Job and thinks that some suffering makes sense. If we drift away from God, suffering is a wake-up call to be ready for what lies beyond the grave (33:14-30). There are also times when God brings judgment on the wicked (34:10-30).

Beyond these specific cases, Elihu will not speculate. He only wants to remind Job of this super simple truth: God is greater than man (33:12). Given our limited knowledge and moral failings we are in no position to accuse God of anything.

After Elihu, it is God’s turn to answer Job:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” — Job 40:2

“Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” — Job 40:8

God is not trying to shut down intellectual curiosity, but Job’s questions are loaded with accusations. If Job is truly the faithful man of God that he takes himself to be, he will not hurl unfounded allegations against God (34:5-9,34-37; 35:14-16).

Case Study: Romans 9

Apparently, some Jewish converts think they deserve a better position in the church than their Gentile brethren. Paul reminds them that they are all on an equal footing with Christ. All members of the church stand to inherit eternal life because they are spiritual heirs of the promise made to Abraham (9:8; see also Romans 4:13-17, Galatians 3:29).

Is this fair? After all, Jews have been serving God for thousands of years, whereas Gentiles are the new kids on the block. But as Paul goes on to explain, God does the choosing (9:15). God has chosen both Jews and Gentiles to receive mercy through Christ (9:24; see also Ephesians 3:1-6).

How does this apply to suffering? Like the Jewish Christians in Rome, I can try to second-guess God on what He should and should not do. I can complain that my current lot in life is just not fair. But I am not the sovereign Lord of the Universe. I cannot see everything He sees.

2. God is Just

So, God is large and in charge. Nothing will get in the way of His plans. But is He just? The New Testament aims to settle that question once and for all.

By allowing His Son to die on the cross, God offers hope of eternal life to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. God wants to free all of us from a world of sin and suffering (2 Peter 3:9).

This brings us back to the fairness claim at the heart of Romans. Paul states the problem: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). And then comes the solution: Jesus died on the cross so that we can have eternal life even though we don’t deserve it (3:24-25a). How does this help God?

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. — Romans 3:25b-26

This is God’s righteousness and God’s justness. Up and until the cross, God’s plan is not obvious. After the cross, God’s plan is fully revealed (Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 1:7-10; 3:1-13). By raising His Son from the grave, God offers hope to both Jew and Gentile. That hope is intimately connected to the problem of suffering:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. — Romans 8:18

Everyone suffers, but Christians look forward to a bodily resurrection and an eternal life with God in heaven (8:22-23; see also 1 Corinthians 15:56-57).

The Logic of Suffering

God’s sovereignty assures us that He has a plan, even if we fail to see or like it. His justness assures us that He loves us and cares for us. Any charges of unfairness, or weakness, or cruelty are blunted on the cross of Calvary.

Biblical theology does not condescendingly pat us on the head and say, “There, there, little one, you suffer because you make bad choices, or because it makes you appreciate the good times, or because it makes you stronger, or because a world with suffering is better than a world without suffering, or because….”

Atheists have seen Christians set their Bibles aside and try to explain the logic of suffering. They see gaping holes, and who can blame them? All those “because” statements do little to offset the sheer quantity of horror we see in the world around us. At the same time, atheists have not been patient enough to hear what Christians actually do believe. The result is that we end up talking past one another.

Christianity acknowledges the terrible shortcomings of this life and points us toward the next. Salvation is the answer. David Bentley Hart writes:

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

We hate suffering, and God offers a way out. There is no inconsistency in such a faith.

Atheists who are patient enough to listen will not like this answer. They think suffering makes sense if evolution is true. But what little they may gain in the logic of suffering they lose in what matters most for those who suffer: purpose and hope.

Copyright © 2014 Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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