Why does God allow suffering?

What’s the problem?

For some people there isn't a ‘problem of suffering’. For the atheist there is no problem - suffering is just a fact of existence like heat from a fire or the wetness of water. The atheist may not like suffering, but he has no reason to object. For the Buddhist or Hindu and the ‘Christian Science’ believer there is no problem, for suffering, and the evil which occasions it, are regarded ultimately as ‘illusion’. It is a ‘problem' for the professing Christian because of holding together two articles of faith: God is almighty and God is good. Here is the puzzle - if God is almighty he must be able to get rid of suffering, if he is good he must want to get rid of suffering. But suffering exists, therefore God cannot be both almighty and good!

Get the Picture

Many a crime in a detective novel has been solved on the basis of what someone saw through the keyhole. The problem with keyholes is that you don’t always get a clear view, there might just be something out of sight which makes all the difference in the world to the interpretation of the scene. Often, we are trying to solve the deep question of suffering from the limited perspective of our ‘keyhole’.

The Bible’s main points

  • Evil and suffering are real - not illusions.They are ‘intrusions’ into the good world God originally made. The bible tells how when Jesus came to earth he stood outside the tomb of his best friend Lazarus and saw the bereaved sisters:
    When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. (John 11:33)
    Literally he was ‘angry’ - death was seen by Jesus as a violent and horrible invasion into his Father’s world.

  • Ultimately, suffering is linked to our rebellion against our Maker. It is a reminder that the world we live in is ‘out of sorts’ with God and stands under judgment.
    Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned--’ (Romans 5:12)

  • This does not mean that every ‘item’ of suffering is a direct punishment from God. This was a question the disciples asked of Jesus about a man born blind: ’Who sinned, this man or his parents?’ Jesus' reply pointed them beyond the suffering to God’s rescuing purposes in himself - "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." (John 9:3)

  • Both man made suffering and ‘natural’ suffering should focus our minds on ultimate issues, causing us not so much to ask ‘Why doesn’t God do something about this?’ but "what is my response to this? How might I change?"

A story from Luke 13

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?'

" 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "

The Bible is the account of God’s remedy for sin and the suffering it occasions - showing he does demonstrate that he is both good and almighty in dealing with the problem through Jesus. He doesn’t just wave a magic wand so suffering goes away - that would still leave the root problem untreated - the cause of all the wars and hatred - our twisted moral natures. God engages in radical surgery.

God might ask: ‘Do you want me to deal with the ruthless dictator and strike him dead?’ We might say ‘yes’. But by the same token if he is going to be consistently good and just, he must deal with the way we treat people. The difference between us and the dictator may be only one of degree, not kind. We simply don't have the power or the opportunity to do what he does, but we do similar things in our own limited way. Should God ignore the one and not the other? What would happen to justice then?

In Jesus, God shows that he takes sin and suffering seriously:

Jesus as the "God-man" knows what it is like to suffer - attempted infanticide as a baby, and cast out of his country as a refugee (Matthew 2). Suffering moral temptation (Matthew 4). Suffering misunderstanding and hostility from his family (Mark 3:21). Hatred and opposition from the religious and political establishment (Mark 3:20). Depression (Mark 14:34). Betrayal and desertion by friends (Mark 14:17-31). Crucifixion and death (Mark 15:21-37).

Why? To reverse the judgment upon us by taking the judgment for our rebellion upon himself.

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
(1 Peter 3)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."
(Galatians 3:13)

He was raised from the dead with a body which would no longer suffer - a ‘prototype’ of that which is to come - a new world where suffering will be no more because sin and judgment will be over. So the story has not yet ended, we are in the last but one chapter.

Will God remove evil and suffering? Yes - one day. But he has already started and dealt with the underlying problem, our wrong relationship with himself, by sending his Son. Christians can therefore side with God to relieve suffering and fight against evil and wrong. But in the meantime, while we live in a world where people still rebel, there will always be suffering and Christians will suffer too. After all Jesus did! But one day, things will be different and we need to make sure we are on side with God before it is too late.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
(Romans 8:18)

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