Why does God allow suffering?

”How dare you create a world in which there is such suffering” was the outburst of a well know atheist a few years ago. Increasingly it seems to be every doubter’s trump card on matters of faith, and anything to do with the divine. The question assumes that because there is suffering, God is either a) not powerful enough to stop it, or b) not good enough to care about it. Either way, atheists or agnostics can now wash their hands of God, and proceed to live as they please. With God on the outside, and man becoming the god of his own world, everything becomes in the words of Stephen Fry; “simpler, purer and cleaner …” or so the argument goes.

To answer any of life’s big questions, one has first to look through the correct philosophical lenses. The spectacles of atheism and naturalism are, for my liking, far too dim to answer this question. In the words of Mr Dawkins, if there is no God and we all came from nothing and are going nowhere:

 “Some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

Evolution, then, has no basis for answering this question. If there is no right and wrong, and we have descended from mindless particles, why should we care about suffering?  Some have tried to view this question through the looking glass of Buddhism or eastern religions, where the chief aim of life is to escape reality and the material, and become part of the universe. Again, this is far too obscure for my liking. It is only when we look at life through a biblical worldview that we have any hope of seeing things clearly. Everything is less fuzzy and life can make sense when we wear our Bible glasses.

The Bible affirms that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1.1). At the end of each day of creation, God stated that the works of His hands were either “good”, or “very good” (Gen 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). At the beginning of man’s history there was no death, no suffering, no tears and no sorrow (Gen chs.1 -2). All was perfect in the Garden of Eden. It follows logically that a God who is intrinsically good in the absolute sense of the word, would only make that which was good. A God whose character is that of love, light and life could not have made anything wrong or inherently bad. It may surprise some that there are certain things that God cannot do. He cannot lie (Heb 6.18), tempt with sin (James 1.13) or change (Mal 3.6). In short, because He cannot do anything contrary to His nature, evil and suffering could not originate in Him.

God made man for His own glory, and for the blessing of that man and his progeny. God desired fellowship with a being who could freely, of his own choice, reciprocate that fellowship and nearness. God was not interested in conscripts or robotic obedience. Man was given a free will, to bring glory to God and receive abundant blessing in return. God in His goodness provided all for Adam and Eve, and commanded them not to eat of one tree – “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2.17). The consequence of eating the fruit was death (Gen 2.17); that is, separation from God. The choice that our forebears had was to enjoy life and live with God, or to choose autonomy and die.

In essence, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree they declared their independence of God. Their actions said that they did not want Him in their lives; rather, they desired to be gods themselves (Gen 3.5). Through his one act of disobedience man allowed sin to come rushing in (Rom 5.12, 19). Man was now separated from God, set adrift on the storm of sin and death without a hope. Man had chosen separation from God and the disastrous consequences ensued. What Adam did, and we continue to do is to switch off the life support system we are attached to – the outcome can never be good. Adam’s original sin, and our continued sin, is the cause of much suffering in the world today. G K Chesterton replied very succinctly to ‘The Times’ article, titled “What’s wrong with the world?” when he responded, “Dear Sir, I am”. How right he was.

We have seen that the root cause of suffering in the world is man and not God. When sin and death entered into the world through the head of the human race, the whole world felt the consequences. Sin was like a Pandora’s Box, and once opened even the inanimate creation felt the catastrophic results. A fallen and cursed world is the Bible’s explanation for natural suffering like disease and disaster. Creation “groans … and travails in pain” (Rom 8.22 JND) today because of sin – we have fallen a long way from the paradise of Eden. The judgment of God upon man because of his sin (Gen 3.14,16,17) was neither arbitrary nor sadistic. This infinitely holy and righteous God dealt with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Just as our legal system punishes any perpetrators (a process which is never pain free) so too the judge of all the earth (Gen 18.25) dealt with Adam, head of creation. God had every right to be rid of Adam and Eve, yet in His rich mercy He told them of a coming Saviour (Gen 3.15), and refused to allow them to live for ever in a sinful condition (Gen 3.22). God in His grace provided a way back for mankind, and He is still doing the same today.

Just as the nervous system rings in pain to tell the body that something is wrong, so the problem of suffering in the world is screaming at us that we are away from God and need to return to Him. C S Lewis once said:

 “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.”

The presence of suffering indicates that we are away from this God of goodness and of love and need to return to Him.

To say that God is not good or powerful enough to prevent suffering seems, to me at least, fallen man’s way of seeking life apart from God. We have seen something of the character of God already, in that He is a God of goodness and mercy. If God were, as Christopher Hitchens said, “a celestial North Korea”, then evidence of this would abound on every hand. We would be back in the realms of Greek mythology with Zeus raining down thunderbolts on a whim. Yet our practical and daily experiences tell us that this is not the case. The air we breathe, the earth in orbit and the cosmological constant remaining constant (go on, have a look), all sing out in testimony that God is merciful and good. The Bible has well said that “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5.45). God is good to all without discrimination.

God is not only good, but powerful too. Indicative in the fact of creation is His sublime power: “He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Psa 33.9). God holds the waters of this world in the “hollow of His hand, and … weighs the mountains in scales” (Is 40.12). He is far beyond our small, finite minds. I for one am glad this God of power does not intervene every time there is an incident of suffering or injustice. If God were to intervene, it would not only be upon the awful acts of terror, the wars or the miscarriages of justice. No, God in His holiness and righteousness would expose and judge every lie, every thought of lust, every act of pride and every single sin you and I commit. God is all powerful and could intervene should He choose; it is because God is longsuffering (2 Pet 3.9) that He does not intervene today. In His rich mercy and great forbearance (Rom 2.4) God is dealing with us in grace. Because of our sins and guilt, we deserve His righteous judgment. God as a holy judge will intervene in a coming day; He will deal fully with the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos of this world. But being a God of absolute justice, He will deal with our sin too. Ultimately we have no excuse for our sin in this world, because we are all guilty (Rom 3.19) before “the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4.13). The suffering question can arise from our sinful bias, in seeking to escape responsibility for our sinful choices. It is amazing that the wrath of God hasn’t fallen on a rebellious world already; but rather He delays intervening in power, desiring that all mankind might be saved (1Tim 2.4)

On the contrary, God has already intervened in this world – in grace and mercy. John 3.17 declares the good news of the gospel, that “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”. In His love and grace God looked upon you and me in our guilt, and sent a Saviour to intervene. The cause of this world’s suffering is not social, political or economic injustices, for these are merely symptoms of the root cause – sin. Were these the causes, God would have sent a politician or an economist. But God has diagnosed exactly the root cause of man’s suffering and sent the perfect cure. God sent a Saviour into the world to reconcile separated man to Himself. God self-sacrificially sent His only begotten Son into this world to save people from their sins - hardly “celestial North Korea”. God paid the ultimate price by sending His Son to die on the cross of Calvary, where in three finite hours He suffered infinitely for sin. If anyone knows about suffering, it is God Himself. . The just one who had never done any wrong died for the guilty who deserved justice – what love. The plan of redemption was accomplished through suffering when He who knew no sin was made sin (2 Cor 5.21). God in condescending grace provided a sacrifice so that we might know personal forgiveness for our sins and acquittal from our guilt. Humans caused the sufferings of the Lord Jesus, when they brutally crucified Him. Peter simply says that men murdered Jesus by hanging Him on a tree (Acts 5.30), but that God in His “determined purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2.23) sovereignly overruled to provide salvation for all. In other words, mankind purposed evil, but God meant if for good, in order to save many people alive (Gen 50.20).

The problem of suffering is nearly as old as time itself, and the Lord Jesus addressed it when He was asked about the catastrophes of His day (Lk 13.1 & 4). Unlike this article with its tangents and shortcomings, He had eternity’s perspective of it all. The Saviour said that unless we repent we will all perish eternally (Lk 13.3 & 5). Dear friend, I encourage you today to turn from your sin and cast yourself upon the grace of God. We all have a stark decision to make – to choose life, or to perish.