A few days ago my wife found out one of her close friend’s son has developed a potentially life threatening disease. I won’t disclose details to protect confidentialities, but needless to say this news was highly distressing to my wife and even more so to her friend and her son.
Events like this sometimes make me cringe as a Christian. My life mission includes telling people that there is a God out there who loves and cares for them, but how can that belief be true when people are experiencing deep pain and suffering on the earth? Where is my loving God in their pain and hurt?
The question of pain and suffering is an important one to answer if the Christian faith is really true. At the same time I’m aware that merely giving answers – even answers which I think are intellectually satisfying – don’t necessarily make a suffering person’s life any easier while they are living with their hurt and pain on a daily basis.
I think our human presence by the side of a hurting friend, or a hug, or a word of encouragement can do far more to help another person in their pain and hurt than any intellectual argument ever can that might explain how suffering can exist if God is really good. Still, since it’s not practically possible for me – or you – to stand by the side of each of the nearly 7 billion humans currently occupying planet earth when they are experiencing pain, perhaps there is some place to present answers as to why suffering exists if God is supposedly good like the Christians claim.
It’s important to define what I mean by ‘Suffering’ for the purpose of this blog. I would define suffering as any physical or emotional pain we experience or, more broadly, anything that we don’t get that we desperately want, or anything we may get that we desperately don’t want. However, even defining suffering this way is not entirely satisfactory as there are different kinds or degrees of suffering. Four different categories of suffering can be identified, which are: i) General Frustration; ii) Suffering caused from our own Foolishness; iii) Injustice; and iv) Cosmic Suffering.
The first level of suffering – General Frustration – relates to events that bother us on an everyday level. This category would include events such as a long line at the grocery store when we’re in a hurry; not being able to find a parking space when we need one; or our 15 year old freezer breaking down the day before Christmas. While events and situations like this annoy us, we usually accept them as being part of life even though they can be incredibly frustrating.
A certain amount of suffering also happens from our own Foolishness and poor choices. For example we spill a cup of coffee on the carpet because we had placed it too close to the edge of the coffee table; or our computer crashes and we lose two weeks of work because we hadn’t backed up our files; or someone drinks and drives and then wraps their car around a tree and ends up in a wheelchair for the rest of their life. We may feel sympathy for such people – as we probably should – but it doesn’t seem to disturb our sense of fairness, because there is a sense in which the person seems to be deserving of what happened to them. They did something foolish and so have suffered the consequences for it.
The next level of suffering is Injustice which is suffering caused to us by someone else’s choices. We have to differentiate two different levels of suffering in the injustice category. At the first, and much shallower, level someone makes a choice that we may not agree with but it affects us emotionally, however only in a temporary way. Our life is not drastically altered by the other person’s (or people’s) choice. For example our parents may not have allowed us to watch a certain TV show when we were growing up that we really wanted to watch; or we had a teacher at school who gave us a detention one day for not doing our homework even though we had a legitimate excuse; or perhaps a girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with us when we thought that we were going to be with that person forever and our heart was broken. Events like these cause us some temporary emotional pain, but we survive and our life goes on without us being much worse for the wear.
However at a second – and much deeper – level, actions of Injustice against us could be labelled ‘evil actions’ committed against us by another person or persons which, as a consequence, we (or somebody we know) are now deeply and permanently affected for the remainder of earthly life.
Examples in this second category include travesties such as being the victim of a drunk driving hit and run where the victim is left paralysed while the drunk driver suffers no permanent after-effects from the crash; or victims of child abuse; or of rape; or of acts of terrorism such as 9/11, continuing all the way along a continuum right up to the genocide that took place against the Jewish people during the reign of Nazi Germany during World War 2. In situations such as these there is usually someone to blame for the suffering, and in many such cases at this level people feel betrayed or abandoned by God, or that He cannot be real because of what they have suffered.
Finally, there is the Cosmic category where suffering occurs but no obvious human perpetrator exists. Events happen to us or to others who we know (or see on TV) that appear to be random, unlucky or unfortunate. Physical ailments, illness and disease are the most frequent offenders in this category. However, this category also includes natural disasters such as the December 26th 2004 tsunami that killed almost 200,000 people; or the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year; or the recent floods in Brisbane. (It’s interesting to note that destructive natural events are often called ‘Acts of God’, which again raises questions in people’s minds about God’s goodness. However it’s amusing to me that we often refer to natural disasters as Acts of God, but when good things happen to us such as a nice sunny day, or rain after a long summer drought that God is not usually credited with the result – however, that is another subject altogether!)
Regardless of the nature of the suffering – especially at the Injustice and Cosmic levels – we are left with the question, “If God is good and all powerful, then why is there suffering (and evil ) in the world?”
Here are some possible answers to this question.
Possible Answer 1: There is no God.
This appears to solve the problem quickly. Eliminating God means we remove the personal agent who appears to be the perpetrator of all our suffering – since He made everything in the first place.
However, if we remove God from the equation then this means the universe really is purposeless and meaningless, and notions such as pain and cruelty and injustice do not really exist apart from some arbitrary social construct that has been made up by humans.
The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis put it this way: “When I was an atheist…my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A person does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. Atheism, then, turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning we should never have found out that it has no meaning… ”
If our notion of the universe being ‘cruel’ is really artificial (assuming God does not exist), then we can also decide the universe is not cruel – but ‘that’s the way things are’. Hence we ought to be able to choose to not perceive events such as the death of a 2 year old son to cancer as ‘sad’, but rather to attribute them to, ‘that’s just the way things are; oh well; too bad’.
The problem with this position is that no-one has ever been able to live consistently like this! We find no examples of humans at any time in history or geographical location who, upon experiencing a situation of deep emotional pain or sadness, ended up saying, ‘That’s just the way life is’!! Instead, they usually say, ‘Why did this happen to me?!’
If God really does not exist then either we must say that the entire human race has been ‘brainwashed’ – that is, socialized into believing that pain and suffering really exist when it really doesn’t(!) – or that real pain and suffering really do exist and that we, somehow, have obtained the notion that the world should not have pain or suffering in it.
If this is the case – as CS Lewis argues – then where did this notion come from(?), as it cannot have come from inside the material world?
Possible Answer 2: Pain and suffering are not real
This position is frequently tied to the idea that life is not real, which is a notion commonly found in many Eastern religions which teach the material world is an illusion. However, to hold that suffering is an illusion produces two problems.
i) Eastern religion teaches that not only suffering is an illusion but also that all of life is an illusion. Both good things and bad things are illusional. However, this seems to be contrary to reality as we seem to accept good things without experiencing any emotion. For example when we are healthy, we don’t notice our health; but when we are sick we grumble and complain that we should be healthy! This difference in our behaviour seems to indicate that we really do prefer being healthy to being sick – yet if they are really both really ‘illusional’ then why should we prefer one over the other?!
ii) If pain and suffering really are an illusion then why should we bother to help those who are suffering at all? Sadly the logical actions to this line of thinking is being lived out in many eastern nations like India and Thailand where there are more beggars, cripples, derelicts and abject poverty than in any other nation, yet few fingers are lifted by the ‘healthy’ people living in these nations to give aid and bring relief to those around them who are suffering, because the prevailing belief is the person’s ‘karma’ has caused their present situation. However, the rest of the world reacts in horror to such images of tremendous human suffering. (Could there be a more inhuman belief system than to not be willing to help people who are truly suffering because, as many Eastern religions teach, ‘the people aren’t really suffering?!!’)
The answer that ‘Pain and Suffering are illusory’ flies in the face of reality and the predominant ‘normal’ human reaction to suffering.
Possible Answer 3:- God is not good
People who hold this position believe there is a real God but He’s not good. He is instead a malevolent deity.
Fortunately in the West at least, there are few organized religions that believe in malevolent deities that control our lives (although numerous animistic religions hold that view). But if we stop for a moment and think we realize that this argument is more flawed than might initially meet the eye.
When we become angry with God because of injustice or suffering we are experiencing in our lives, we struggle, and wonder whether God is malevolent. Yet we, ourselves, are expressing malevolent emotions – usually anger – against this ‘God’ and accusing Him of being malevolent!
Philosophically, this argument is weak because…
a) We are all hypocrites. Have we not ourselves caused pain to another person at some point in our life? Perhaps we picked on a smaller child when we were at school; or we hit our brother or sister one time; or we backed our car into a pensioner’s fence and drove off without telling them and paying restitution to have the damage repaired. When we accuse God of not being good because we are suffering, we find ourselves to be at least partially guilty of having committed actions during our lifetime that cause, or have caused, others to suffer either intentionally or unintentionally.
b) This position requires us to be the judges of what is good and what is bad – in other words to ‘pick and choose’ through our own subjective experience as to what is good and what is not. But throughout history humans have proven decidedly incapable of judging what is right and wrong. If a person is dying of aids contracted from frequent sexual contact, this may cause emotional pain to the person’s family and friends, but was their sexual activity appropriate moral behaviour in the first place? The American revolutionary war fought against England in the 1700’s was in large part a conflict over the issues of self-governance and taxation. Taxation without representation was – to the Americans – ‘equal to tyranny’. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the fight over the right of the American nation to self-govern and tax, yet America today now has one of the most complicated taxation and bureaucratic governmental systems in the Western world and I, for one, am far happier being part of the Commonwealth. (Please don’t think from this comment that I am anti-American; America has brought much good to the world and I am also married to an American!) Even events at the cosmic level can have both positive and negative consequences. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants. However, it was also of great assistance in destroying the millions of rats (and fleas) that had contributed to the bubonic plague!
To say that God is ‘wrong’ is again appealing to a standard of ‘goodness’ to which we are comparing God’s actions against and finding that He falls short. Once again, where did this standard of goodness that we are measuring God against come from? A true knowledge of goodness can ultimately and only come from a truly moral (good) being. That being is God, who is the only person capable of truly defining what is ‘good’.
Possible Answer 4:- God is good but not all-powerful, so He is not able to eliminate evil in the world
This fourth position has at least some merit, although parts of this philosophy are weak. One could argue that God is not all powerful, but if we believe there are some things that God has no control over then we have no answer for some of the bad things that seem to happen for no reason and can only be attributed to ‘randomness’ in the universe.
However, if God is not truly in control then the amount of bad things that may be possible in the universe could be infinite and the universe suddenly becomes a rather terrifying place where we never quite know what to expect.
It’s possible that this position could be used to defend the Christian faith, but it doesn’t really do justice to the teaching of the Bible which says that God is all powerful and that He is in control of His cosmos (Rev 19:6).
Possible Answer 5: God is good, loving and powerful, and He will ultimately solve the problem of suffering in time. However, for a season He allows it for His purposes.
The notion that we are in a period where God’s goodness is not absolutely seen yet, but we are coming to a time when all will ultimately be rectified is the traditional Christian view of suffering. Suffering is inevitable and while many times it is incomprehensible on a human level, joyfully it is endurable. However, for most of us, that’s still not enough of a reason!
God incorporates suffering and even evil into His world – even if we don’t fully understand why – for His ultimate good purposes. The Bible and our own reasoning tell us that there are many good purposes for suffering. Some of these include the perfecting and purifying effect in our suffering that connects us with the divine. Suffering moves us out of our comfort zone and it drives us to God for comfort. C.S. Lewis wrote, “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”.
Another ‘good’ purpose of suffering is that it brings us compassion and empathy for others who are suffering when we recover. Suffering is also a way of helping us learn the true depth of our faith. It’s frequently not during, but rather after the crisis, that we know what we are truly made of and how we handled the deep emotions of the painful situation that we found ourselves in.
Also consider what a world without any suffering at all would really be like in its ability to turn people to God. While the promise of heaven is that it is a place without any suffering (Revelation 21:4), would anyone really turn to God in this life if they had never had any experience of suffering or pain in any way, shape or form at any time at all during their earthly human experience?
The Bible is not devoid of people who suffered – even sometimes very unjustly. Two of the greatest examples are Job and Jesus Christ! God’s view of Job is one of grace and forgiveness, and ultimately, although Job is never told of the heavenly wager or the reason for his suffering, his relationship to God is restored. That is what’s most important. And concerning Jesus, Christian’s see Him as God’s answer to our suffering because He became one of us to suffer along with us and ultimately for us.
In the Christian view, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is the evidence that God has not forgotten us. The life of Jesus and His death and resurrection is the down payment on the promise that He will ultimately wipe away every tear from our eyes- as He says He will do when He returns… That’s how I am able to process the pain and suffering we experience in this life and can move through it, though it is never easy.
Hope some of these words may provide comfort and knowledge no matter what the circumstances.
Bryce – Fit 4 Life Staff