I’m getting close to the end of the topics I have wanted to cover in this series on Christian apologetics (being able to explain our faith in a logical manner to someone seeking to understand it with an open mind and honest intellectual curiosity). This topic needed to come later in the series because it builds on several of the previous themes. In light of what has happened in Ukraine this past week, it seemed like a good time to tackle this tough question.
I should start off by saying that this topic is certainly challenging to cover in a (hopefully) brief blog post. CS Lewis has written a whole book on this theme called The Problem of Pain. He, of course, does his usual masterful job of addressing the subject in a logical and thorough way, so if you’d like to dive deeper than I am able to in this article, I encourage you to pick up a copy.
Where is God in Global and Individual Suffering?
When we talk about suffering, at the forefront of our minds right now is the situation in Ukraine. Sadly, there have been many wars before this that have caused misery at the global level. To add to this, each of us undoubtedly has tragic tales of individual suffering. In the last 10 years, I have lost both my mom and mother-in-law, both of whom are very important to me. My sister-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly a year ago. As I write this, a dear friend of mine is losing her decade-long battle with cancer.
These situations and countless more like them can and should make those of us who are already followers of Christ wonder why God allows us to suffer. To wonder something like this is human, and it does not catch our Creator by surprise.
So, it’s certainly understandable why someone who does not believe in God to explain their disbelief with a logical argument that goes something like this:
- There is evil in the world
- You claim there is a loving, all-powerful God. If he exists, he should eliminate evil
- If he can but he won’t, then he’s not really loving
- If he wants to but he can’t, then he’s not really all-powerful
- Therefore, I reject your notion of a loving, all-powerful God
I have to admit, this is a tough one. I hate pain and suffering as much as the next person. While I do believe in a loving, all-powerful God, I also find it hard to believe that he allows such widespread, systematic evil to exist. He could easily eliminate dictators and cancer, but he does not. Why not?
The short and honest answer is, I don’t really know. But at the same time, I do not see my lack of knowing as a valid reason to disbelieve God when everything else in my experience, plus all the logical arguments I’ve outlined throughout this series, so conclusively point to a God who created us and loves us sacrificially, to the point where he himself was willing to suffer in order to draw us near to him.
Earlier in the day, I enjoyed a delicious apple. I do not fully understand how a little seed from the apple can go into the ground and eventually become a tree. Nor do I understand how that tree can spontaneously produce apples when there was previously no indication that it would do so. However, in spite of my lack of understanding of these things, I still enjoyed the apple.
Similarly, when I walked into this room, I flipped the switch and light came on. I have a rudimentary understanding of how electricity works, but I certainly couldn’t tell you any of the technical details about how that electricity was generated, how it came to be in my house, or how it is converted into light. And yet, when I flipped the switch, I had complete faith that the light would come on.
In other words, we don’t have to fully understand something in order to have faith in it or enjoy it. God knew there would be things he did that would make no sense to us, so he gave us a pass when he said:
“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 (NIV)
Having said all that, let me summarize how I have attempted to reconcile in my own mind the existence of a loving, all-powerful God with the existence of evil and the resulting pain and suffering.
Free Will Means the Ability to Choose
When God made us, he wanted to give us the choice whether or not to believe in him and love him. If he didn’t do this, he could not have considered whatever feelings we may have had toward him as “love” since whatever you do out of compulsion could not be counted as love. A dictator may foolishly believe his subjects love him because they obey him when in reality they do so out of fear. They must obey him or they may be executed. That is certainly not love.
So God gave us free will–the ability to choose to believe in him and love him.
Or the ability to choose to reject him.
God is good and the source of all goodness within us since he made us. Choosing to reject him means also rejecting, either momentarily or habitually, the goodness he built into us. The absence of goodness is evil. In this way, evil itself is not a created entity–it is just the absence of goodness, in the same way darkness is not something created, but rather it is simply the absence of light.
This at least addresses the question some non-believers ask: Why would a benevolent God create evil?
The answer is, He did not. He gave us the ability to choose to reject goodness, which is the definition of evil.
But Still, How Can God Allow Pain and Suffering?
I have a few things to say about this.
First, sometimes our pain and suffering result from our own bad choices. As a parent, I tried to teach my children how to avoid painful lessons I had learned the hard way in my life. In this, I was only partially successful. Each of them, to some extent, has had to make mistakes for themselves before they would learn from them. The two younger ones continue to make dumb decisions, which has led to painful consequences for them. I did not want them to make these dumb decisions because I knew the pain they would cause. But they are adults, so I have to allow them to make those decisions.
How much more, then, does our heavenly Father not want us to make dumb decisions because he knows the pain they will cause. But he gave us the free will to choose to make those dumb decisions, so he has to allow us to make them.
Also, here I’d like to pull in one of the many good quotes from the CS Lewis book I mentioned earlier, The Problem of Pain. Before I do, though, I should preface it by saying that I do not believe that God causes all pain, although he almost certainly does some of the time to teach us important lessons. It may have been painful in some way for my kids when I scolded them for running into the street without first looking for oncoming cars, but it was obviously worth it to avoid the far greater pain that could result from them not learning that lesson. Having said that, here’s the Lewis quote:
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. 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.CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
In other words, sometimes pain is the best teacher.
Second, what about when other people make evil choices that impact me? Why doesn’t God intervene to save innocent people?
This is obviously the question people may be asking about what Putin is doing in Ukraine. But it is not a new question.
It’s a tough question, to be sure. The best answer I have is that if God intervened every time someone made the choice to do evil, it would cease to be a choice for that person. Walking back through what I mentioned earlier about free will, we see that to do that would essentially mean eliminating that person’s free will. And since we all at one time or another make bad choices, we can quickly see that this would lead to the elimination of free will altogether.
Finally, what about other unnatural causes of death, like cancer? I addressed this in a post I wrote a year ago in response to the untimely death of my sister-in-law. It was called Gone Too Soon. As I admitted at the time (and still stand by that admission), it may not be all that comforting, but here’s a summary. Basically, we view this kind of suffering from our finite perspective. We suffer because a loved one has been yanked from our grasp. But from God’s infinite, eternal perspective, it could be that our loved one is no longer suffering. They may be in paradise with him in a restored, healthy body.
There are no verses in the Bible I can point to that support this last point; it is only a guess on my part based on the loving God I have come to know and worship.
Let me close by pointing out that God hates suffering at least as much as we do. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus had died. Not because he missed him (since he was about to raise him back to life) but because this isn’t the way he had intended for things to be. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he was to be tortured to death, Jesus begged his Father to find another way to redeem humanity. Prior to that, Jesus had been homeless, hungry, betrayed, and humiliated. We should find some consolation in the fact that our God loves us enough to enter into our messy world, and as a result, has himself suffered in every way imaginable. As Jesus told his disciples, so he also tells us:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”John 16:33 (NIV)
Jesus never promised that our lives would become easy once we become his followers. In fact, he told us that we will have trouble. He only promised that he will be in the boat with us when the storms of life come our way.