The question constantly asked by non-Christians is:
“How can a God of love let all this suffering go on in his world? Either he doesn’t exist at all or he is a vicious tyrant who enjoys seeing people in pain.”
Before I attempt to answer this question, I think it helpful to turn the question around so those who are asking can see that the premise which they take is equally illogical. If we assume that God does not exist because there is evil in the world, then how are we going to explain that there is joy and happiness as well? Who are we going to blame that on? Does that then prove God’s existence? Of course not. It points out the fact that suffering can not be explained so simply, and that the whole reality of suffering is much more complex than simply blaming it all on God, as so many people are prone to do.
The fact is that there is simply no slick or easy answer to the problem of suffering. It might be helpful to ask those who decry God’s existence to explain why they believe there is suffering. They would be the first to admit that the blame rests on none other than ourselves, a view which ironically is close to our own. It is from this premise then that we should start the discussion. Because, while the humanists like to think they have disproved God because of the suffering we find in the world, they fail to understand that the very existence of suffering presupposes the existence of goodness and happiness as well, yet whose source, I feel, only we who believe in the existence of God can adequately explain and offer to the world. Let’s then take the questions one by one.
Question 1: Who is to blame for the suffering?
So who is to blame for all the suffering in the world? Obviously, as humans we want to apportion blame, and just like everyone before us we assume the blame rests with someone else. Yet the answer to who is to blame has already been intimated in the introduction, and is one area which we find in common with our interlocutors. We only have ourselves to blame. It’s no good pointing our finger at God for the suffering. We need to look in the mirror, and point the finger at the real culprit: the human race.
To a greater or lesser degree, we all contribute to the suffering in the world. The papers are full of it, statistics on murders, rapes and muggings fill the pages, and we all know who the culprits are, or have a good idea who they are. But that kind of suffering we don’t blame on God, because it is obvious where the source comes from. What we are concerned about is the suffering which we have no control over: such as earthquakes, famine, volcanoes, and other natural disasters? Would a just God allow them to continue?
I would like to posit the notion that while natural disasters do bring about much destruction and pain, much of the suffering for these natural disasters can also possibly be blamed on ourselves. Consider:
While we cannot control them, we can control their damage to humanity, which is really where the suffering comes in. Yet, most suffering from earthquakes can be prevented. Consider:
- 1906 San Francisco earthquake: thousands of people died. Dr. T. Nakamura, sent by the Japanese government went to investigate the earthquake. His prognosis: “Dishonest mortar was responsible for nearly all the earthquake damage”. (Gaukroger 1995:22)
- 1935 Quetta, Pakistan earthquake: where many again died. The reason similarly was the poor constructional quality of the buildings. Those buildings which survived all had good cement, so that their chimneys still remained intact (Gaukroger 1995:23)!
- 1985 Mexico City earthquake: again culpability was put on second-rate workmanship and the skimping on construction materials.
So for 80 years we knew how to minimize earthquake damage, yet we still had not learned the lesson. While many people shook their fist at God, they chose to ignore the guilt which was lurking in their own back yard.
Now let’s take the example of Kobe, Japan, in 1995. There was billions of œs in damage, but little loss of life because of the lessons learned from San Francisco, Quetta and Mexico. Only the older buildings, which had not applied this new technology were destroyed. Would those who had earlier blamed God for the former earthquakes, have credited Him for the few who were killed in the Kobe earthquake? Certainly not! It was the engineers who had learned from past experience and applied what they knew who were credited with the success at Kobe; and any good humanist would agree. Then, to be consistent, these same humanists shouldn’t have been so quick to blame God for the deaths in San Francisco, Quetta and Mexico. Let’s put blame where blame is due.
Interestingly, most famines can be avoided, and are not the result of natural occurances, but are primarily caused by man.
- 1985 Ethiopian famine was devastating, yet two years earlier relief agencies working in Ethiopia had warned the government that it was coming. Instead of alleviating the problem, the government spent $200 million on celebrating the independence of the communist takeover.
- Deforestation in Senegal: All our neighbours used firewood rather than gas, though everyone knew (by TV adverts) that wood-burning caused deforestation, and heats up the atmosphere dissipating clouds, which retards rain. Knowing the devastation they were causing they continued to use wood, because “it was what they had used since they were children”.
Should God be blamed for the resulting famines?
While no-one can control volcanoes, today the suffering which they cause is now at a minimum. Most are carefully watched by scientists, and there is enough forewarning from technology to get humans out of dangers way (i.e. Mt. St. Helens, and the 12 who disregarded the warnings). Thus, except for lost property which can be replaced, there are few who suffer from volcanoes anymore.
What about that which is beyond our control to resist? Natural disasters, such as landslides, typhoons, sudden violent storms and floods etc…
If there was anything which we could possibly blame God for, these are they. Yet, while humanists can only wring their hands in anger and frustration, Christians are the only ones who have an answer to this question:
Only we have the solution.
In order to find that answer we need to go back to Genesis 3:17-19. In this chapter we find that God made a perfect world. Yet man turned his back on God, and rebelled, and this affected not only his relationship with God, but all of creations relationship with God. Here we find that the curse given to Adam and Eve also affected the earth. A perfect world became imperfect. Adam found himself in a world which was now infected with sickness and disease, and also, natural disasters.
These disasters will continue, and we will be caught up in them and suffer as a result. It seems hopeless, yet it isn’t. Here is where we can offer a solution which the humanist cannot. We know that it will not continue indefinitely. In Genesis 3:15 God promised that the error of the sin in Eden would be rectified later on by a “son of Eve,” whom we know as God Himself, Jesus, and that this would be done by “crushing the head of Satan,” which was done on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago. Because of that act, we now know that we will be reunited with God, walking and talking with Him as we saw Adam and Eve doing in the garden (see Genesis 3:8-9). It won’t be in this life, but the life to come, where there will be no suffering and no pain, no disasters or injustices; where life will continue as it was intended from the very beginning.
Question 2: Why does God not get rid of suffering?
The follow on to the first question is why God allows suffering to continue? Why does He simply not get rid of it? The simple answer is that it is no good asking God to get rid of all suffering, because in doing so, knowing that we are to blame for most of it, He would have to get rid of all of us, and we would then be demanding our own demise.
It’s much too simplistic to assume that since suffering hurts it is therefore bad and must be done away with. There is another side to it. The fact that we do suffer demonstrates that there are consequences, which means that we have choice, which implies a freedom of will. This proves that we are not robots who are programmed to act only one certain way. It is the Bible which tells us that we have been made in God’s image (Genesis 2:27), and because God has a free will to choose so do we. But it doesn’t come without a cost, as it presupposes that there will be consequences for the choices we make, which often involves happiness, but also can involve suffering.
It is much like a game of chess: There are rules in the game which must be applied consistently throughout. Certainly we make mistakes and pieces are taken from us, so that in the end we will win or lose the game depending on how many pieces are left. We enjoy it when the opponent loses a piece, and this brings us happiness, yet we do not carry the same sentiment when on the next move our own piece is eliminated. While we could say that losing a piece is horrible and painful and therefore is not just, we would not change the rules so that no-one would lose a piece, because then it would no longer be the game of chess.
Life is much the same way. There are rules which we must play by, rules which involve consequences. Yet though we get hurt in life it does not mean that we should throw it away. We learn from our mistakes so that the next time we won’t make them (much like getting back up on the horse, once you have fallen). The great thing is that we have been given a book on how best to play the game; the Bible. If we refuse to read it, and then make mistakes, we should not then blame God. Read what He has said in His book, and try not to make that mistake again (i.e. family and divorce).
Question 3: Why does God not stop the bad actions of men?
The third question concerns why, if there is a loving God, does He not intervene and stop the bad actions of bad men? Certainly the innocent should not have to suffer at the hands of those who are evil? Where is the justice in that?
To begin with, we need to look at what the humanist is demanding. In order to fulfill this obligation God would have to intervene all the time, and thus alter the laws of nature: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when used as a weapon, or a knife blade became putty in the hands of an aggressor, or the bullet of the assassin disintegrated in mid-flight. It would be impossible to imagine a world like this. Life would be a mass of confusion, as there would be no longer any rules which we would be held accountable to. Like the chess game, the fact that there are rules and consequences to our actions gives the game its relevance and makes it worth playing.
In order to create persons with free will there had to be a predictable universe, which included both evil and good. Thus the possibility of evil is inherent in the very existence of freedom. Yet because of man’s rebellion one of the inescapable consequences of this was suffering, whether mental or physical, whether self-inflicted or by another. While we love freedom, we tend not to like the consequences which go with it; yet we cannot have one without the other.
Question 4: Why is there pain?
Many people ask why there must be pain in our suffering? Genesis 3:16 speaks of pain entering into the world, specifically pointing to the pain of childbirth. Before that time there was no pain. Thus pain is a result of the rebellion of man. Yet that is not all.
We need pain.
This question does not take into consideration that we really need pain. If God removed pain completely it would be disastrous for us all.
Examples: our appendix bursting, or the loss of fingers by leprosy. How would we know when our body was being damaged if there was no pain? Pain is an early warning system which tells us that something is wrong with our body.
But what do we do with a disfigured baby, or someone who is handicapped from birth or by an accident? Did they deserve this suffering?
No, of course not. But like the scenario which we discussed earlier, if we can agree that creation was perverted by the sin of Eden, and we can agree that disasters are a consequence of that sin, then we should also agree that disfigurement and being handicapped will also fall into those same categories. In an imperfect world we should expect to see these handicaps.
But are we not all handicapped to a certain degree? We all have physical problems and difficulties. I wear glasses, and am hopeless driving at night without them. Does this upset my view of reality, and should I blame God for my shortsightedness? No, because of all people He can understand my infirmities, possibly better than myself, because He has experienced it all before!
We are not alone.
Unlike all other religions, the Biblical view of God is not one of an uninvolved deity, just sitting back and watching us suffer. He came Himself to earth to suffer like His creation.
A piece called The Long Silence sums this up perfectly:
“At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame but with belligerence, saying, “Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?” snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror, beating, torture, and death!” In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched for no crime but being black!” In another crowd, a pregnant school girl with sullen eyes said, “Why should I suffer? It wasn’t my fault.” Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He permitted in His world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that men had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
“So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever. Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their verdict was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of His birth be doubted. Give Him a work so difficult that even His family will think Him out of His mind when He tries to do it. Let Him be betrayed by His closest friends. Let Him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let Him be tortured. At last, let Him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let Him die. Let Him die so that there can be no doubt He died. Let there be a whole host of witnesses to verify it. As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served His sentence.”
Indeed God has already felt our pain and He therefore understands us. He has been where we are, and this provides great comfort for those who are going through pain now.
Question 5: Will suffering ever end?
But even more than that, God’s sojourn on earth was not simply to understand our needs; it had an even greater purpose. He came that we might have life, and that more abundantly. He came to break the power of sin, which had first entered the world at Eden. And by breaking the power of sin, by His death on the cross, He broke the power of suffering. The world threw everything they could at Him, but He still emerged the outright winner. The proof of this is that He rose again on the third day. Since that time death has no more sting.
But why then is there still suffering and evil in the world if Jesus has already defeated it? Will it ever end? The game of chess can help us here again. When two grandmasters play, many times one or the other will resign the game long before the game is over. To an untrained observer this may seem curious, and even foolish, yet to the trained chess mind, the resignation is all but inevitable, and therefore quite logical. The game could continue on 20 or 30 moves, but the one player already has the upper hand, and will win irregardless of where the other player chooses to move.
This is similar to the scenario Satan has to live with. The Bible says that Christ’s death and resurrection are like that decisive move in the cosmic struggle against evil and all its consequences. Satan knows that the critical move was carried out 2,000 years ago, and that at that time he lost. Yet he plays on, trying to manipulate humanity to his whims, and it is his suffering which we see all around us. We now live in the closing stages of the game. It is just a matter of time now before God will call “check-mate.” That as well gives me great confidence, because I know that the days of evil and suffering are numbered.
For the humanist the alternative is rather bleak indeed. What can the humanist offer for those who are suffering out of no fault of their own? What hope is there for them? It is only because we know that God exists, and that He loves us, so much so that He came and suffered as we have suffered that we can possibly look at those who are in pain, in the face and say, be comforted, for it is only for a while; it will be soon over, and there is someone who can help; may I introduce Him to you? He is the one who set the rules, He is the one who plays the game to its conclusion, but He is also the one who has been where we have been, who helps us along the way, and keeps us from falling. Let me share with you the famous little story called Footprints:
“One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord and across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it, Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most, you would leave me.’ The Lord replied, My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you'” (Anonymous).
This is the guarantee we all have if we are in relationship with Him. We now live in an imperfect world where there is suffering and pain. The rules demand suffering. But God promises that the pain will never be more than that which we can bear, and that “He will always provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (See 1 Corinthians 10:13).
And it doesn’t end with this life; for we know that God has gone to prepare a place for us, a place where we can finally be with Him for eternity.
So what can we offer to those who believe that suffering proves there is no God? We can offer them the only alternative to a suffering we all experience, believer and unbeliever alike; that is an offer of help and support in this life for the suffering which is there, and the assurance of a complete absence of suffering in the life to come.
The alternative is much more bleak. For the humanist our present existence with all its pain and deprivation is all there is. He cannot explain where the pain and suffering really came from, other than to point to man. Nor can he explain how to alleviate it. But worst of all, he has no hope at all for its eradication. He is stuck with it for the duration of his existence. He may continue to try and blame it on God, but then he would have to admit God’s existence; and that he won’t do, because it would entail a response. So instead he continues playing the game with no idea of where he came from, where he is, or where he is going. That indeed is bad news.
The good news, however, is that while we may be in the midst of the game, and while we may be losing pieces here and there, we know that the game will end in victory and happiness. For we can see the dim light at the end of the tunnel, when we will not have to lose anymore. Then we will be with Christ in glory, where there is no pain, no suffering, and no sorrow; returning to the garden once again where God had intended us to be all along. Now with that kind of news, I can sustain the suffering I may have to shoulder while we sojourn for a while here on earth. So let’s play on!
Forster, Roger & Marston, Paul, That’s A Good Question, Eastbourne, Coverdale, 1977
Gaukroger, Stephen, It Makes Sense, London, Scripture Union, 1995
Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, Collins/Fount, 1977
Watson, David, Is Anyone There?, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1979
Weston, Paul, Why We Can’t Believe, Are there any answers?, Leicester, Frameworks, 1991