Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Why would an All-Powerful and Loving God allow a world full of suffering and rank evil? As important questions go, this one has to be near the top. It’s not a brand-new question. And it’s not an easy one. When trouble strikes, even Christians can find themselves impaled on the horns of this dilemma.

If a loving God exists, why does He allow suffering and so many terrible things? It’s a problem that generates sharp questions that Christians can’t ignore.

Does God allow suffering and evil because He’s too weak to stop it?

Does He make the bad things happen?

Doesn’t He care?

Serious efforts have been made by theologians and philosophers to provide good answers. Many books have been written offering insights and trying to put some good answers into words. But the question hasn’t gone away.

And yet Christianity does have an answer. It’s simple, it’s real, and it touches bottom.

Christianity’s Answer

Christianity’s answer that we’ll review here is not the result of some sudden, secret or newly revealed epiphany. It’s the same answer Christians have heard since the first century. But it’s an answer that’s almost too big for human languages to handle.

It’s simple in the sense that it’s an answer a young child, or an adult that can’t read or write, can understand.

It’s real in every sense of the word.

It touches bottom in the sense that it gives us ground to stand on, no longer adrift or in over our heads.

But it’s a difficult answer to put into words, in the sense that words aren’t going to be enough. Christianity’s answer is more than words, but words need to be part of it, whether the words are spoken or written down.

1. Simple

Christianity’s answer is simple in the sense that no one needs a great deal of formal education to understand it. A person can be a Christian and not know how to read or write. But they do need to be told.

They need to be told that after we die we will face Judgment. We will be held accountable for our wrong thoughts, our wrong words, and our wrong actions. The Bible calls those things “sin”. It’s a religious-sounding word that has lost some impact in our modern world. But sin is deadly. To commit even just one sin is a capital offense.

We’re all guilty of sin. The penalty is death. That’s the bad news.

But they also need to be told the good news, which is -- if we choose to believe and accept it – our death penalty has already been paid by Somebody Else. In enormous love, God’s sent His Son to this earth to die in payment for our sins and crimes in our stead. Anyone who fully accepts that substituted payment is promised forgiveness and eternal life.

Even a young child or an illiterate adult can understand the difference between a person who merely talks about rescuing someone in danger, and a person who actually sacrifices their life to do so.

We know what it means when a hero gives away the last seat in the lifeboat or the last parachute on the plane. And we know how much harder that self-sacrifice can be if there’s a lot of time to think about it beforehand.

Christianity doesn’t just give us an answer in words. It gives us an answer in Person. Jesus sacrificed His life to rescue and save us. And there’s a way in which that makes this part of Christianity’s answer simple enough that even children and illiterate adults can understand.

2. Real

The second part of Christianity’s answer is as real as you and I, but it’s a difficult answer to put into words.

The severe honesty of Christianity’s answer squares up to the fact that this world is a really bad place. Humanity’s story is dark, scary, mean, bewildering, bloody and very unfair. It’s a story of wars, crimes, and atrocities. It’s a story of mindless time-and-chance accidents, natural disasters, sickness, and disease. Of viciousness, greed, oppression, stupidity, and fear. And death.

If you personally are going through an easy, comfortable time in your life right now, be thankful. But be humbly aware that your story may not be over yet.

For those who live without faith, life has little or no meaning. It may or may not be comfortable, but it has nothing to offer beyond temporary Darwinian survival and some limited self-enhancements and achievements.

But for Christians as people of faith, Christianity’s answer provides real meaning, real purpose, and real hope.

But it’s a difficult answer to put into words because this part of the answer also comes with a sting.

Real Story

History has been described as God’s Family Story – His Story.

It’s a Story overflowing with billions of backstories because every person’s life is also a story. Every family history is a story. Tribal, national and world histories are stories. Too many of these stories are tragedies. Some are astonishing. Some are inspiring.

All of them are real. And more are being added all the time.

The question of why this world is full of suffering and evil wouldn’t come up if none of these stories were real. No one, literally, would care.

Real Tension

Stories run on tension until a point of resolution. All stories do. Stories always go somewhere. God’s Story and our individual and our collective stories are going somewhere too. History isn’t over yet.

Christianity doesn’t pretend to be a magic wand for a no-tension, pain-free, fairy-tale life. On the contrary, Christianity warns us that life will be full of pain and trouble and that Christians should expect it. The tension is real.

And so is our suffering and pain. But why?

Real Free Will

A big part of the answer is Free Will. God intended that we would be real people, with real freedom and real Free Will to make real choices. If God took away our Free Will and over-rode all our choices and made us always do the right thing whether we wanted to or not, we wouldn’t be real people at all.

But what exactly IS Free Will? Philosophers and theologians are ever ready and eager to tear into this question with knife and fork. The “Yeah, but what about this?” and “Yeah, but what about that?” objections that get raised merely seem to create additional edges and surfaces for more objections to latch onto.

Some theologians have built their own vocabulary for debating what Free Will really means. Christianity has been divided over arcane puzzles such as the implications of Predestination, or whether babies are born already pre-guilty of “Original Sin”. To non-Christians, some of these squabbles can sound silly, like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

For example, some Christian theologians teach that God has already decided who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell, long before people are even born. This must be the case, those theologians insist, because if God doesn’t control and know these things in advance, then God is imperfect because he’s limited. And by “definition” God mustn’t be limited.

But other theologians point out that a God who is unable to create a world with genuine Free Will is limited too.

Theological stalemates like these can make the Christian life seem harder in some ways than it really needs to be.

Since the Bible has been written as though Free Will is taken for granted, this study paper is being written that way too.

Real Freedom

Because we have real freedom – Free Will – we find ourselves in a real world filled with real people. Not robots. Not things.

And because we’re real people and have Free Will, our world is full of tension, suffering and evil because we all sin. We make bad choices.

So some of our suffering is self-inflicted. And some of our suffering comes from the bad (including evil, malicious, predatory) choices of others. And sometimes our troubles come from bad choices made by people who came before us, and we simply find ourselves suffering because of the time and place we were born.

And some suffering comes from mindless time and chance, from bad luck, from accidents, sickness and disease, and natural disasters.

There are other factors and causes. To list them all here would be unnecessary because they all point in the same direction. We’re living free in a spiritually broken, messed-up, fallen world. Real freedom in this life means real danger, real suffering and real pain. We want real freedom, but we don’t want pain.

We want freedom because we want to be real people.

We want our stories to mean something.

Real Hope

Why does life sometimes hurt so much? This is the sting – life hurts because it’s real.

But the fact that our suffering and pain are real tells us something extremely important. It means we’re not dreaming this existence. It means we’re not just figments of our own imaginations. We’re not avatars, hallucinations, holograms, or ghosts. We’re real, our suffering and pain are real, and our stories are real too.

And if we’re Christians, this means we have a good reason to believe our eternal future joy, happiness, and peace are going to be just as intensely real.

3. Touches Bottom

Christianity’s answer is simple and real. And it touches bottom. But putting this third part into words isn’t going to be easy either because we’re going to need to talk about the Trinity.

The Trinity is a concept that both Christians and non-Christians can find hard to comprehend. But the Trinity is at the heart and core of Christianity. And the Trinity is part of Christianity’s answer to the question we’re addressing in this paper.

The Bible demands that there is one God. God the Father is God. But the Bible also demands that Jesus is God, otherwise it would be wrong to worship Him. And the Bible also demands that the Holy Spirit is God because it presents the Holy Spirit doing things only God can do.

It took some time for the early church to figure out how to put the Trinity into words: 

       One God in Three Persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Persons” is the word they chose to use in that formula, but theologians explain that they’re using that word in a special way – not in the sense of a “person” who was a created being and therefore had a beginning and an end in time.

Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Second “Person” in the Trinity. They believe that when Jesus lived on earth as a man, He was fully human and fully divine. He was “Emmanuel”, God with us.

And, also very, very important, Jesus was the one through whom humanity and all the material universe were created.

For Christians, the Trinity is what makes Christianity’s answer to the problem of suffering and evil touch bottom. It’s how the death of the only sinless man who ever lived, who was in fact the Creator of all people who ever lived, by making Himself human, by making himself vulnerable, by making himself killable, could sacrifice Himself to suffer and die to pay for the crimes and sins of His entire creation.

One Creator paid for the sins and crimes of One Creation. And that means that one payment was enough.

And then three days later Jesus was resurrected. And that One Resurrection was enough.

The Trinity is how Christianity’s answer came down from the highest infinity and touched bottom.

And then came back up.

Head Answers and Heart Answers

Christianity’s answer to the problem of suffering and evil is simple, real, and it touches bottom. But it’s a difficult answer to put into words because words by themselves aren’t enough. Christianity’s answer is also a Person.

And yet, words are important because words can give us Head Answers. Factual, objective answers. And Heart Answers are important too.

Head Answers are important because even a small, sharp point of light in a dark place can be something to navigate by. And Heart Answers are important because they can make the difference whether we keep on going or give up and quit.

Part of Christianity’s answer is a Head answer in the sense that it’s the same universal answer for everybody. It’s simple. It’s real. It’s a sharp point of light in a world that’s moving through darkness towards resolution, towards redemption, towards restoration, towards a good ending. It points to where the story is going.

And part of Christianity’s answer is a Heart answer. This answer is harder to put into words because everybody’s life story is different. And there are billions of them.

This study paper would have no business trying to speculate or judge why any specific person might be going through any specific personal trial right now. But Christianity has a Heart Answer for every person who doesn’t want to face fear, grief, heartache, and death alone without a Friend. Christianity’s Heart Answer is Jesus on the cross.

The Hard Way

Life hurts because it’s real. This is the sting. We don’t like it, and we can sometimes wonder if life is worth all the pain, fear, and tears. Jesus’ answer is yes, it is.

Jesus knew what kind of death He was going to suffer long before it happened. Most of us today have no idea what being crucified was like. We can read about crucifixions, see depictions in movies and art, but it’s not the same.

Could we comprehend it better if one of our own hands was nailed hard to a wooden door?

Maybe you’re going through an extremely bad trial right now. If so, in Jesus you have a Friend who knows what that’s like. Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer a lonely, terrible, slow, undeserved, excruciating death, inflicted on him by people He loved who were trying to make His pain and death as mean and brutal as they knew how.

In Jesus you have a Friend who knows what slow pain, torture, and death are like. And He also knows the joy of then coming back to life again. Forever.

Life hurts because it’s real. Christianity’s answer is that it’s worth it. Christianity’s answer is simple, real, and it’s enough. Christianity’s answer is Jesus Christ.

The Dilemma

Perhaps some Christians think God should always protect them from every pain and danger, that He should bless and prosper them at every turn, and that their lives should be tension free.

After all, they might reason, Jesus performed miracles and healed people while He was on earth. And they have the testimonies of Christians who have had miraculous answers to prayers in every century since that time. Perhaps they think God should always grant their prayers for peace and comfort and that they should be living in uninterrupted, supernatural, protective bubbles.

But a moment’s reflection would remind them that Jesus didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t fix every problem on earth while He was here. And He never promised that every Christian would enjoy an easy, care-free, fairy-tale life.

There have been Christians from the beginnings of the church down to the present day who have been crucified, eaten alive, burned at stakes, and beheaded. The heroes of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11 lived lives punctuated by wonderful miracles and answered prayers. In spite of that, they all died. Some in cruel, terrible ways.

For those who expect the Christian life to be perpetually easy and trouble-free, this is a problem.

An Important Line

God didn’t create this universe and then abandon it. He continues to sustain the entire physical creation down to the energy level of every atom. He continues to make His rain fall on the just and the unjust. He continues to maintain a careful, necessary tension to keep His Story going forward as intended.

God does answer prayers (note that sometimes His answer is no). And He does bless and guide the people He’s working with at this time. (It makes a difference whether we ask for His help or not, but He often involves Himself regardless.)

God is working with us. This means that like a parent teaching a child to walk, He allows us to fall, get up, try again, and learn. As we grow He makes use of life’s difficulties as teachable moments, as tools for correcting, testing, and pruning. God loves us massively and is involved in our lives much more than we realize. But in some ways it’s better for us if we don’t always know exactly how much.

And that’s because there’s a line that God is careful about crossing, and He does so only in limited ways. Too much intervention in our lives, too much control and over-riding of our Free Will can make us less than real people. Too little intervention and help, and our stories and the History of this world can crash.

We want God to “hold the universe together” and keep it going. But we don’t want God controlling everything we do. We want freedom to do what we want. We want to make our own choices. We want to be real people. And God is allowing us that.

So now we live in a world that has largely chosen to live as though God doesn’t exist. And when random natural disasters strike, people wonder why God doesn’t prevent them like they want Him to.

Why is an All-Powerful and Loving God allowing a world of suffering and rank evil? He’s allowing it because we want the freedom to be real people, and He wants that for us too.

Courage

History is a Story that’s almost too big for human languages to handle. And it’s scary because we know it’s a story that can hit us with pain and suffering every brand new day.

When Jesus told His disciples “Take up your cross, and follow me”, they knew what He meant. Taking up one’s cross meant unspeakable pain. That was scary. It still is.

But in Jesus we have a Friend who knows what it’s like to be profoundly scared. Jesus always knew Good Friday was coming. He didn’t like it, even though He knew Easter was coming too. It scared Him, but He didn’t run away. He squared up to the cross, let Himself get nailed to it like a piece of meat, suffered and died. And three days later He rose from the dead.

G. K. Chesterton wrote (in Orthodoxy):

       Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator.

Jesus didn’t promise His followers a no-tension, easy, pain-free life. Jesus tasted suffering, pain, and death, and sometimes Christians do too. But Jesus promised to be with us at all times, no matter what we’re going through, to the end of this age and beyond.

Sometimes life can really hurt. When it does Christians need faith. And Courage.

The Good News is we have a Friend….

Study paper 4-19-2020 anuther pilgrim.