There’s no doubt about it: one of the most difficult and perplexing questions that any of us face – whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic, is the problem of pain and suffering.
It is a matter that is particularly difficult for the Christian. The Christian believes in a God who is all-loving and all-powerful. Immediately he is presented with a dilemma: if God is all-powerful, he has the ability to put an end to suffering. If God is all-loving, he would care enough to put a stop to human suffering. Since we continue to suffer God must either not be good and loving or he is not all-powerful. This is the card the atheist continually throws in the Christian’s face.
John Lennox, Oxford Mathematician and Christian apologist says there are two different perspectives to this problem: the intellectual and the personal. Both need addressing. If you were told you had a terminal disease, you need a clear and accurate diagnosis so that you know exactly where you stand. But that’s not all you need. You also want someone who can empathize with you. You need someone who will sit with you and hold your hand.
Let’s start with the personal. I know what it is to experience suffering. I haven’t suffered as much as others have. I’ve never experienced Nazi gas chambers or been a victim of ethnic cleansing or been told by a doctor that I have incurable liver cancer and have 3 months to live. But I’ve still seen and experienced suffering.
I remember, as a young boy, watching my grandfather vomiting up his food all over the table because his stomach lining was falling to pieces from the tins of bully-beef he ate in the trenches of Gallipoli. I remember the day I was told that my brother Michael was killed after stalling his plane on a top-dressing run. He immediately put the plane into a dive to build up air speed but never pulled out. He was married only a month. It was something my dad never fully got over. We were all profoundly affected by it.
My wife’s upbringing wasn’t much easier. Her dad left when she was only two years old. Her mother had to raise two children on her own, working two jobs to make ends meet. Then she developed Multiple Sclerosis and had to stop working, with no sickness benefit or family assistance. One morning she found her mother dead on the kitchen floor. She was 17. Her mother was only 39.
Francelle tried staying in touch with her brother but he remained aloof from the family. She wrote him many letters and prayed for him daily, but he never replied. A few years back she received a phone call from her Aunt: her brother’s body was found in a hotel room, with a bottle of pain killers. He had overdosed on pain medication and alcohol. I don’t think he ever got over his father abandoning him.
Over the years of ministering together, we have seen people suffer greatly. We’ve held a lifeless 6-month-old baby in our arms, days after his little life was taken by a brain tumor. We’ve comforted parents of teenage son, who slipped under the waters of a lake while swimming with friends and never resurfaced. We’ve sat with people overwhelmed with grief after learning their loved one has terminal cancer.
Our world is full of suffering. None of us can escape it. In one way or another, each of us have been personally affected. So how do we make sense of it all? Let’s begin with some inadequate answers.
Inadequate answers to the problem of suffering
Naturalism / Materialism
The naturalist says ultimate reality in life consists of matter and energy. That’s all life is: atoms and particles banging into each other. There is no God, there is no good and there is no evil. Richard Dawkins, a leading 21st century spokesman for atheism says:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.
This is what happens when you take Atheism to its logical conclusion. Terrorists and murderers and rapists are simply dancing to the music of their DNA. So how can you blame them? Well Dawkins would say you can’t because there is no good and no evil. The problem of evil simply vanishes – intellectually. How people find that satisfying I have no idea.
Pantheism is the view that God is everything and everyone and everything is God. A tree is God, a rock is God, an animal is God, the sky is God, the sun is God, you are God. Hinduism, Buddhism, and the New Age Movement are all forms of Pantheism. But there’s a problem: if God is pure goodness (as God should be), then everything must be good – I’m good, you’re good, Hitler was good, the Holocaust was good. Child abuse is good. Cancer is good. It’s all good because it’s all God. Pantheism, as an answer for suffering, isn’t much better.
The theist believes in a personal/transcendent God who is both Creator and Ruler over all things, including suffering and evil. All Christians are theists, as are orthodox Jews and Muslims (and some others). Ask a Jewish a Jewish Rabbi about why suffering exists in the world and he won’t want to answer (especially since the Holocaust). Ask a Muslim and he will say “it is the will of Allah.” If you are suffering, Allah wills it.
The only adequate answer to the problem of suffering
None of those are adequate answers to the problem of pain and suffering. That leaves one last option: Christianity. Most of us a familiar with the biblical story. God creates a perfect world, free from any disease or death or suffering. Everything was as it should be. Then Adam believes the serpent’s lie that he could be like God. He disobeys and plunges the entire human race into sin. Both Adam and Eve, along with the planet they inhabit, are cursed. Death enters the scene and pain and suffering becomes his constant companion.
Why is the world the way it is? Because we humans messed it up. Natural disasters – hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis: it all comes back to human sin. Don’t blame God for what we see. We caused it.
Now all that is true and useful as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. It leaves the impression that God has washed his hands of the problem. In trying to absolve God from any responsibility for suffering and evil, we end up with a God who has no say or control over human suffering. He is merely a spectator.
But that not what we find in Scripture. And Isaiah chapter 45 is just one very good example. Here you have Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia. The Medes and Persians conquered Babylon, a world empire. Cyrus led that conquest. In verse 1 God calls him “My anointed” – my chosen one. God is going to use this pagan king to accomplish his good purposes. Cyrus is going to kill people – lots of people. He is going to cause much suffering. But God has control of him, as the following verses indicate. Then in verse 7 we find this very difficult verse:
“I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
The word “disaster” could also be translated adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, or misery. The Lord, at times, for his own good purposes, cause adversity, affliction, distress and yes – when needed, even misery.
- He sent an evil spirit to torment Saul
- He sends poisonous snakes to bite the grumbling Israelites
- Under King David he sends a pestilence that takes the lives of 70,000 men.
Evangelist Tony Evans says it this way: “Everything is either caused by God or allowed by God and there is no third category.” When it comes down to it, I’d rather worship a God who suddenly and without warning does things that make no sense to me, who gives life as well as takes it, who sends prosperity as well as trouble – a God who at times leaves me speechless and confused, than worship a God who I can understand. Because that would be a god who would be just like me.
There is one more important piece of the puzzle we haven’t yet touched on. And I believe it’s the most important. How do we make sense of all the suffering we see in the world? We look to the cross.
The cross is the ultimate proof that God does not stand aloof from the suffering of the world. He entered into it. Two thousand years ago Jesus left the glories of heaven for the indignity of a lowly stable. He entered our world, took our nature, and then died a sacrificial atoning death in our place. “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus said, “than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
He didn’t simply die with us.
He died for us.
But it doesn’t finish there. Jesus came back from the dead. He reversed the curse, broke the chains of sin and death and set in motion a chain of events that will one day mean an end to all hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes and cancer and suffering and pain that plagues us in this world.
God has not left us without hope. He has provided a way for us to be made whole, to be made new, and to live forever in the new creation. Our bodies, our loved ones, our earthy home will one day be redeemed, restored and renewed. This is how God is going to fix everything, and it’s all going to happen when Jesus returns.
In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost and discovers instead that he is still alive and all his friends are around him. “Gandalf!” he cries out, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
The answer is YES.
And the answer of the Bible is YES.
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the answer for those who believe is YES.
Note: This post was based on a sermon on Suffering and Evil from our “Hot Topics” series. You can listen to the full audio on our website here. You can also listen to the discussion forum that followed here.
 Richard Dawkins, Out of Eden, page 133.