The Problem of Pain and Suffering
This past summer I traveled to the UKon a teaching trip. I was asked to speak on
the problem of pain and suffering. When I received the request my first thought was to
wonder why they thought I might be qualified to speak on this topic. I certainly
have not had any sort of extraordinary suffering in my life. By the end of the experience
I was grateful to have been asked to speak on this question. As I pondered the subject,
I came to realize that the problem of suffering and of the existence of evil
in the world is the most significant apologetic question for the majority of
people. Some struggle with questions about science and the Bible, others with doubts
about supposed inconsistencies in the Bible, still others with claims that the
Bible is historically fraudulent. I believe that for the open-minded person
who is willing to put in a little effort, these questions are answered fairly
easily. Those who continue to claim that the Bible is full of scientific errors have
either not bothered to research the subject or bring a very strong bias to the
question. Unlike other apologetic questions, the problem of evil and of suffering
does not lend itself to fairly easy answers. Even sincere, intellectually honest
Christians often find this question to be very troubling, despite their willingness
to put their faith in God. If this is the most significant apologetic question,
especially for the sincere and open-minded, then it definitely deserves careful
AN APOLOGETIC PROBLEM AND A HUMAN PROBLEM
Pain and suffering is an apologetic problem. It is also a human problem. This essay
is an attempt to deal with both questions. It is an apologetic problem because the existence
of evil in the world naturally raises a question about God. The agnostic asks the
believer two questions. First, is God all-knowing and all-powerful? The biblical response is a definite
yes. Be careful, we are about to back ourselves into a corner. The next question of the
agnostic is this. Is the God of the Bible a completely loving God? Again, the answer
is a resounding yes. Given these two responses, it certainly seems legitimate to
point out that on the face of it, this presents a logical contradiction. Considering all
the human suffering in the world?the disease, pain, violence, crime, premature
death and much more, it seems reasonable to conclude that there are two possibilities. E
ither God is very loving, but not all-powerful?he would like to eliminate such
evil from the lives of humans but is unable to, or he is all powerful, but not
completely loving toward the humans he created. If he is able to prevent the litany
of human agony, and if he also loves us very much, surely he would put an end
to all the suffering. It seems that something has to give. How is a believer to
hold onto their theology in view of this apologetic question? This is the subject of
the first part of this essay.
Pain and suffering is also a human problem. If we are able to deal with the intellectual
challenge of the apologetic question raised above (and that is a big if), this
alone does not solve the problem. Even if we can somehow simultaneously defend the
omnipotence of God and his love, we are still left with a lot of pain and suffering
in the world. This is not just a problem of the intellect. It is a problem of the heart. Even if
we can understand the nature of suffering, the question remains: what will our
personal response be to those we find in pain and suffering around us? What is
our world-view of human suffering, and what is the Christian response? Having
read a fair amount on the subject, I have found that most writers deal either
with the intellectual or with the human problem. I propose to bring these two issues
together. How should we think, how should we feel and how should we respond
to the existence of evil and of suffering around us?
PAIN AND SUFFERING: AN INTELLECTUAL RESPONSE
We will begin by considering the range of the question. What is suffering, anyway? Clearly
there is more than one kind of suffering. Are all to be considered equally? Do they raise different
kinds of questions? In delineating different sorts of human suffering, we will eventually
have to ask two questions. First, is this suffering God?s ?fault?? Is God to blame for this
pain?this suffering? Second, is this suffering truly evil? The intellectual quandary raised
above is based on the assumption that suffering itself is inherently an evil. W
e will question this assumption. If pain and suffering is not evil then the apparent contradiction
raised by the skeptic or even by the sincere seeker goes away. Please remember that
there will be no simple answer to this question. Let us consider some of the kinds of
suffering which are common to the human condition.
1. Pain. Acute pain, boken bones, etc., chronic and debilitating pain, cancer, etc.
2. Disease, both acute and chronic. Cancer, meningitis, lupus, leprosy, heart disease.
3. Broken relationships, unrequited love, lost friendships.
4. Poverty, hunger, depredation in general.
5. Violent crime, rape, sexual abuse, terrorism, genocide, political crimes.
6. Chronic fear, much of which is created by the items in point #5.
7. Disappointment, feelings of failure, loss of hope, loss of a job and others.
8. Death of a loved one. Bereavement, mourning.
When I was a child my parents told me the truism that ?sticks and stones may
break my bones, but words will never hurt me.? I now believe that this proverb
cannot be further from the truth. Of the kinds of suffering listed above, it
is my experience that it is the emotional pain and suffering which haunts us
and which we fear the most. The physical pain of childhood sexual abuse endures
for a few minutes or a few years, but the emotional pain lasts for a lifetime,
and even more than a lifetime. The physical pain associated with death can be
intense, but the pain of those left behind is often greater and longer lasting.
In this essay, we will attempt to give a reasonable explanation of the nature
of this suffering and the cause of it from God?s perspective. Please remember, though,
that there remains no simple answer. There are kinds and examples of suffering for
which we will simply be unable to provide an explanation which will satisfy
the heart. Examples include the death of a young child from brain cancer, birth defects
which leave a child completely unable to have any significant quality of life,
the death of hundreds of thousands in the tsunami of Dec. 30, 2004, the holocaust
of the Jews under the Nazis or of the Armenians under the Turks in 1917. Even of
we can provide some sort of an intellectual answer to such suffering in the
treatment below, it seems somehow cruel to provide a cut and dried explanation
to such suffering. Indeed, I believe it is not my or anyone else?s place to provide ?the
answer? to such things.
Bottom line, there is a lot of suffering in the world. This is the
God made, and which he said was very good! (Genesis 1:31) This is a very serious
question. What is the cause of all this suffering, and what is the explanation from
God?s perspective? Is it because God lacks the power to prevent pain, suffering and evil?
Is it because God is aloof?because he does not love us enough to step in and
prevent the suffering that happens in the world which he created? Does the existence
of suffering in the world prove that God, if he exists, is evil, or at least
that he is not totally good?
CAUSES OF SUFFERING
One of the questions raised above about the suffering and evil in the world
is whether they are God?s fault. In my own experience in relationships, I have found
that the assignment of fault or blame is generally not productive. In fact, it tends to
be counter productive. However, in the intellectual discussion of pain and suffering,
blame is an issue which cannot be avoided. Of course, there is a sense in which all
suffering is, by definition, God?s fault. This is the universe which he created. No creati
on, no pain, no evil, and no suffering. The president who commits us to war is ultimately
responsible for any kind of evil which happens as a result of that war?even
the random act of evil committed by a single deranged soldier. However, on a
personal level, we do not hold the person who makes a decision to go to war responsible
personally for an individual who decides, against policy and the clear directions
from the top, to commit a crime of passion. How does this dichotomy apply to the creator
of everything? This is something we will have to consider carefully. Again,
simple answers will not do here.
One of the causes of suffering, although it is an indirect one, is the existence
of free will as a factor in the human condition. Remember that this essay is on the biblical
theology of suffering and evil. If we are going to discuss free will, it is worth
noting that the phrase ?free will? is not found in the Bible. In fact, there is little
if any discussion of what we call free will in the Bible. Having said that, I believe
we can make a strong case that the idea of free will is very much a biblical
one. Free will is, by definition, the possession by a conscious individual person
of the ability to exercise their will freely in order to make choices about
the direction of their lives. Does the Bible show us conclusively that human
beings possess this freedom of will?
In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 God tells his people through Moses that they are being
given a choice between life and death, blessings and curses. At the end of this emotional
appeal, God pleads with his people, ?Now choose life, so that you and your children
may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold
fast to him.? Similarly, at the end of his life, Joshua left this charge with the
people of God, ?But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose
for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers
served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are liv
ing. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.? (Joshua 24:15)
Jesus seems to agree that human beings are given free choice whether we will
serve God or not. He did not try to force people to follow him. Instead he appealed
to their hearts, their minds and their consciences. ?If anyone chooses to do
God?s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I
speak on my own.? (John 7:17) ?If anyone would come after me he must?? (Luke 9:23)
There is some biblical evidence that in certain special situations, God will
step into a person?s life temporarily when his sovereign will trumps that of
the individual. This seems to be the case when God hardened Pharaoh?s heart
and when he urged Judas to do what he planned to do quickly. In each case God temporarily
violated a person?s free will in order to bring about his sovereign will: the
salvation of his people. However, in both situations, God was moving a person
who was already inclined toward evil. I also believe that ultimately even Pharaoh
and Judas could have repented. God?s sovereign will did not remove their ultimate
choice. What we are left with is the clear biblical teaching, which seems to be confirmed
by our own experiences; God has given his creatures freedom of will to do good
or to do evil.
Would we fault God in this? Would we prefer to live in a universe in which conscious
beings do not have free will? Is lack of freedom of choice an improvement? I say that love?
true love?gives choices. Does the one who chooses to criticize God prefer to live in
a world in which they are automatons? Consider the case of parents who dramatically
over-control their children, removing almost all freedom of choice. Is this
a loving way to treat our offspring? Loving parents, like a loving God, train their children
to make good choices. They influence through example, love and discipline, but they
do not manipulate or remove choice.
It was God?s will to create persons who, of their own will, reciprocate his
love of them by rejecting pride and selfishness; freely choosing to love and
to serve God. Is this an evil thing? Let each person reach their own conclusion in the
matter (but be thankful for being able to reach your own conclusion!). The question is whether
God is both all-powerful and loving. I say that God is so loving and so powerful that
he created beings who have both the capacity and the freedom to love or to not
love their Creator.
Let us look at it from God?s perspective (if that is possible). God took a huge chance
in us. He created us in his image. He gave us emotions, the ability to create, and
a freedom of will not unlike his. In the person of Jesus, he even laid down his
life so that we would have the opportunity to be forgiven of our shortcomings.
This was very risky. Consider Adam and Eve. God took a risk with them. Most of their
offspring did even worse than they did. ?The Lord was grieved? and his heart was
filled with pain.? (Genesis 6:6). Is this because God was not powerful enough or
not loving enough? Anyone who pours their life into a person with free will risks
being rejected and hurt. Those of us who have been parents understand this. Parenti
ng is an extremely risky activity. All of us who choose to bring children into the world
risk pouring our lives, our energy and our love into our offspring, only to
have them reject all this sacrifice. For all we know, our children can become drug addicts,
felons or simply very bitter and angry people. Why do we take such risks? We do this because
in this sense we are like God. We want to give and to receive love freely.
One of the causes of evil and suffering in this world is free will. As stated above,
this is only an indirect cause of suffering. The possession of free will only leads to
suffering if people choose to disobey the will of God. If free will is a cause
of suffering it is because sin is a cause of suffering. A loving God gave us a choice
and we abused
that choice in order to do evil. As stated more than once already,
no single answer can explain all suffering, but I believe that by far the greatest
part of human suffering is caused by sin on the part of individual people. Not all
our pain can be traced to sin, but consider the amount of suffering, on an individual,
family, community and even nation-wide level is produced by sin. Surely anger,
greed, addictive behavior, pride, jealousy, violence, sexual perversion, selfishness,
jealousy, lack of self control, the ungodly desire for power and other sins
are the cause of most of the emotional suffering and even much of the physical suffe
ring we experience. Is God to blame for this? Consider the alternative. We could live in a world in which
we do not have freedom of choice, but is that the world we would choose for
God has created the physical world with natural laws. These laws have inevitable
consequences. If I drive a car into a tree at 120 miles per hour, I do not blame God for
the consequences of such an action. In fact, it is these very laws of nature which
make it possible for us to live, as we will see below. God has also created and revealed
moral laws. Certain sinful behaviors have inevitable consequences in our lives. Ther
e are eternal consequences involved, but that is not the point. In this life, selfishness,
drunkenness, violence, sexual abuse will cause suffering, both in the life of
the one who commits the sin and in the lives of others. These moral laws are about
as easy to avoid as the law of gravity. Sin causes suffering. Even if our sins are forgiven
by the blood of Jesus, they still have consequences in this life for those who
perpetrate the sins and for those caught in the cross fire. The Bible never tells
us to expect this law to be broken, whether we are saved or not.
Let us consider two Old Testament passages which discuss the consequences of
sin. First, in Ezekiel 18:4 God tells his people, ?For every living soul belongs
to me, the father as well as the son?both alike belong to me. The soul who sins
is the one who will die.? He continues, concerning a very sinful man, ?But suppose
this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees
them, he does not do such things?He will not die for his father?s sin; he will
surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion,
robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.? This passage tells
us that the son does not suffer the consequences of the sin of his father. It
is fair to broaden this out to say that those around the sinner do not suffer
the consequences for the acts of the sinner.
Next, consider another passage which, at first glance, seems to contradict Ezekiel
18. We find in Exodus 20:5 the statement that, ?I, the Lord your God, am a jealous
God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth
generation.? Do we suffer the punishment for the sins of others or not? What seems complicated
at first is actually quite simple. Ezekiel 18 tells us that as for eternal consequences?
heaven or hell?the son is not held accountable for the sin of the father. However, E
xodus 20:5 informs us that in this life we will be affected negatively by God?s
physical punishment for the sins committed by those we are close to. This physical
judgment will obviously cause emotional pain as well. When Judahwas taken into
captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, the righteous people suffered right along with
those whose gross sins caused God to bring physical punishment on Jerusalem.
This is as true today as it was in the days of Moses. If a father sexually molests
his own child, that child suffers for the sin of their father to be sure. Not
only that, but we know from experience that the children of the victim of abuse
also suffers. Without intervention, the cycle of abuse will continue ?to the
fourth generation.? This moral law of suffering brought into lives because of sin is not
eliminated altogether even if the daughter of abuse comes to Christ. She will
be healed spiritually and emotionally by God. This may be true, but if we think
that this Christian mother?s self esteem is not affected and that it has absolutely
no effect on her children, we do not understand the consequences of sin. It
is well known that the sin of alcoholism has a similar generational effect.
Selfishness, greed, anger, jealousy; these sins hurt innocent people. Are we
going to blame God for this fact? This is the real (intellectual) question.
Does the existence of sin, and suffering brought about by that sin prove that
God is either not sufficiently loving or not sufficiently powerful? God gave us free
will and we abused it. As for myself, I do not blame God for giving me a choice.
I am thankful he had the courage and love to give me a choice. I am motivated
to make God not regret giving me a choice to do good or evil.
Before we move on to the next cause of suffering, I want to emphasize an important
point. Not all suffering is the result of sin. We make a mistake, and sometimes
we commit an injustice when we assume all suffering is because of sin. The Old
Testament book most relevant to the problem of suffering is Job. Job suffered an
inordinate amount. Only naturally, he asks, ?why me?? His friends Eliphaz, Bildad
and Zophar tell him that God is punishing him for his sin. Job responds that
he is righteous and does not deserve the suffering. Who is right? The answer
is that none of the participants in this debate is correct, unless we count
God as a participant. God tells Job that his friends are wrong. He is not being
punished for his sin. But then, Job is not right either. He is not sufficiently righteous
to be able to charge God with not being fair. The point is this, Job suffered
greatly, but it was not because of his sin. Let us note something in Job which
may help us to understand how to deal with suffering. Interestingly, God never
told Job why he was made to suffer. We learn from this that God may not answer our
question ?why?? That being true, we need to be very cautious to give pat answers
to our friends as to why they are suffering.
We learn from the Old Testament that not all suffering is caused by evil. Jesus
made the same point as recorded in John chapter nine. Concerning a man born
blind, his apostles asked Jesus, ?who sinned, this man or his parents, that
he was born blind?? (John 9:2) Here we see the human prejudice toward assuming human
suffering is automatically the result of someone?s sin. Jesus answers, ?Neither
this man, nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God
might be displayed in his life.? (John 9:3)
Prejudice such as that exhibited by the apostles has not disappeared from the
face of the earth. Some self-righteous ?Christians? have stated that AIDS is
God?s punishment for homosexuality. What arrogance! Who are we to speak for
God in this matter? We need to be very careful about playing the sin card as
it relates to the suffering of those around us, including ourselves. We will
discuss a better response to suffering in the second part of this essay.
We have already considered free will and, more directly, sin committed by those
given their freedom as the cause of a great proportion of the suffering of human
beings. As w
e have just seen, sin cannot explain all suffering. Some of the
suffering which comes into people?s lives is caused by natural phenomena. Obvious
examples include earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters. To these,
one can add disease and the natural processes caused by aging. When an earthquake
happens or when outbreak of an infectious disease occurs, the victims seem random.
It seems irrational to tie such events to the sins of an individual or even
of a nation. The agnostic, or even the believer asks, why, if God is all-powerful
and completely loving did he allow two hundred thousand people to die in the
great tsunami on December 30, 2004? Did all those children deserve to die? What
good was achieved by whole families being wiped out?
As mentioned above, God created the world with moral laws of cause and effect.
The same holds true for the laws of nature which were created by the same God.
When God conceived of and created the physical universe, it was extraordinarily
well designed so that life can exist. Scientists inform us that the force of
gravity, the electromagnetic force and the nuclear strong and weak forces are
all ?fine tuned.? In other words, if any of them were changed even very slightly,
the universe would not have the properties to allow life to exist. If the force
of gravity was a miniscule fraction smaller, galaxies, stars and planets would
not have formed. If it was ever so slightly stronger, the universe would have
collapsed back in on itself in just a few million years. There is only one element?
carbon?with the properties required to build the large molecules required for
life to exist. There is only one magnetic element; iron. Without the magnetic
properties of iron, highly energetic charged particles from the sun would destroy
all life on the earth. Of course without the unique properties of hydrogen,
stars would not produce massive amounts of energy necessary to support life
on the earth.
The fortunate facts about the earth we live on include the production of heat
inside the earth from radioactive uranium and the action of plate tectonics
caused by the release of that heat. Without plate tectonics, the earth would
have lost its atmosphere and the soil would have lost its ability to support an abundance
of life a long time ago. Plate tectonics, a necessity for life, also produces
earthquakes. Humans suffer because of earthquakes. Before we fault God for causing
earthquakes, we better propose a universe and an environment in that universe which
does not include plate tectonics. Are earthquakes evil? No, they are necessary
The same can be said for hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and any of a number of
similar natural disasters. God created a spectacularly well-tuned universe,
solar system and earth. When heat is radiated from a round object toward a round
object very far away, the heat is not distributed evenly. Without the natural heat
distribution systems in the oceans and the atmosphere, the earth would be uninhabitable
to advanced life forms due to the extremes of temperature. The weather is our
friend, even if it occasionally produces effects which are dangerous. The alternative is much
worse. To the critic who feels God did not do a good enough job in designing the
natural world, please, suggest a better natural system than the one we have,
and while you are at it, create this system out of nothing. Extremes of weather
may cause suffering, but unless someone can propose a better system, we should
thank God rather than doubt him. Are storms and the destruction wrought by them
evil? No, weather is a blessing.
The argument can continue. Would anyone like to live in a world without bacteria?
The very existence of advanced life forms on the earth is completely dependent
on bacteria. The same category of one-celled life which is the cause of much
disease is also responsible for putting nitrogen into the soil, for keeping the
carbon cycle in balance, for producing vitamin K in our bodies and for an innumerable
number of other absolutely essential chemical tasks. Forms of the same bacteria
which are absolutely essential to life cause disease. Life exists in a delicate balance,
but it exists. For myself, I am unwilling to declare bacteria and disease caused
by bacteria evil.
In the final analysis, any conceivable natural system for sustaining advanced
living beings will be dangerous. Is this an evil thing? Does this mean God is
weak or not loving or not intelligent enough to solve the problems? Far from
it. In the words of David, ?The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim
the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night
they display knowledge.? (Psalms 19:1-2) God?s creation is a thing of wonder
and beauty. If he were to ask my opinion, to be honest, I would ask for a world
with less physical danger and with more perfect weather everywhere, but who
am I to criticize the spectacular natural system created by God.
We have considered free will and subsequent sin as well as natural causes of
suffering. This is not the end of the story. Additional causes of suffering
still to be considered include aging, pain and death. Bear in mind that there
will be kinds of suffering which none of us can explain. We will not be able to dismiss
such things with a wave of the hand. As we will see, that is not God?s way.
In the Bible, God takes the issue of suffering head-on.
This is the first of a three-part series on the problem of pain and suffering. The secon
d installment will cover the question of pain and the issue of death and mourning.
In addition, it will describe a biblical view of suffering and evil. The last
and most important section will be on the human response to suffering.
John Oakes, PhD