I am a sophomore in high school, and I recently began to engage in dialog
with one of my atheist friends about the existence of God. My interest in
the subject began last summer while my friend was attending a philosophy
camp at Duke. He knew I was a Christian, so he sent me three formulations
of the Problem of Evil:
A. I. If God is all-loving, He must desire to destroy evil
II. If God is Omnipotent, He must be capable of destroying evil
III. Evil exists
IV. An omnipotent, all-loving God logically cannot exist
B. I. God created all of existence
II. Evil exists
III. God created evil
C. I. God is perfect
II. Imperfection cannot come from perfection
III. Evil is imperfect
IV. Evil exists
V. Ergo, God cannot logically exist
At first I didn’t research the formulations, but I realized some glaring
errors, such as some misconceptions of God and free-will. I sent him a
short response, and in return he replied in greater detail. He said said
things such as a loving and all-powerful God could and would create a
world with free-will, yet without evil. I then answered him with a lengthy
email (I can send you this dialog) and the discussion has continued since,
without resolve. We began reading some books on the issue, although I
admit I have not read nearly enough about it. At school we even began to
have debates about subjects, like why God condemns people to hell, the
beginning of the universe, evolution, the divinity of Jesus, the veracity
of the Bible, the salvation/condemnation of those who do not know the
lord, and the Gnostic Gospels. In fact, this summer I have resolved to
write a book on Christian apologetics and contermporary attacks on God and
Jesus. I am even considering pursuing a career in the field.
He has brought up many questions to which I need better answers.
The existence of God
Evolution (we have discussed the evidence and topics such as irreducible
These formulations of the problem of evil
Why so many characters in the Old Testament(like Moses) seem to act evil
Mosaic Law and why God would punish people so(Did those who were put to
death by the law go to hell?)
How an all loving God could send people to eternal punishment
What about Indian tribes who never heard of God?
Is the Bible reliable
What is hell like?
What to literally and what to metaphorically interpret from the Bible
The resurrection of Jesus
Why God made a new covenant with us
If you have the time, pleasane help me as I speak to my friend. I truly
need the aid of a Christian Brother.
I am SO PROUD of you for your zeal to pursue the truth and to help people
to come to belief in God. Obviously you know I cannot give you a detailed
answer to all your questions, as each deserves a several page essay. Let
me encourage you in this. It is immediately obvious to me that you have
the gift of teaching and that you ought to develop this gift for God. I
suggest you pursue a more “normal” degree for your undergraduate work, so
as to set yourself up for a “real” for your future and perhaps to plan, if
possible, to do some graduate work in apologetics. As far as I know, the
best school for this in the country is at Biola University in La Mirada,
CA, although I know of programs at Lincoln College in Illinois and Trinity
College in Indiana are worth mentioning.
Let me give you some materials on The Problem of Pain and Suffering and of
Evil. I have a CD and DVD on the subject available at www.ipibooks.com,
but am cutting and pasting an outline I have used.
As to the other questions, can you please limit yourself to one question
at a time? Can you choose one for now that I can answer–perhaps narrow
down your list.
As a general comment, I have found that most criticisms and questions
about the reliability of the Bible are answered relatively easily. The
open-minded person can just do a little research and see how clear it is
that the Bible is inspired by God. Of course, that is easy to say, but I
am just offering my observation. There are a few questions which I find
hard, and you mention almost all of them. The HARD questions, I have
1. The problem of evil
2. The problem of suffering
3. The question of hell
4. The question of the violence which seems allowed or even suggested by
God in the Old Testament.
Most of the other questions are perhaps sincere, but are answered
relatively easily for those willing to listen and to give God and the
Bible the benefit of the doubt which I believe they more than deserve.
So, given my response to questions #1,2 below, what do you propose next,
or what additional aspects of question 1&2 answered below remains
unsettled for you?
Bear in mind that it is somewhat likely that you will not be able to
convince your friends by reason, even if you are correct in your beliefs.
This is frustrating, but it is also true. Many of our atheist friends
(and perhaps even more of our religious friends!!!) believe for emotional
rather than rational reasons. As Jonathin Swift said, “It is impossible
to reason a person out of something they were not reasoned into in the
first place.” This applies to the atheist. In fact, I have found many
atheists to have a clear emotional rather than evidential basis for their
unbelief. Take the emotion-saturated diatribe “The God Delusion” by
Read the article below.
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 attention.
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
s, 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. Either 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. We 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,
2. Disease, both acute and chronic. Cancer, meningitis, lupus, leprosy,
3. Broken relationships, unrequited love, lost friendships.
4. Poverty, hunger, depredation in general.
5. Violent crime, rape, sexual abuse, terrorism, genocide, political
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
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 world
which 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 creation, 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 c
hildren 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
living. 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. Parenting 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 suffering 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 ourselves?
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. There 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
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,
Exodus 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.”
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 we 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 to
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
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
In the previous essay I proposed a two-pronged strategy to considering
the problem of pain and suffering. The existence of evil and of suffering
is both an apologetic problem and a human problem. In the first part, I
tackled the apologetic issue. If God is all powerful and completely
loving, is there not an inconsistency, given the tremendous amount of
suffering in the world? We looked at the causes of suffering, which
include the God-given gift of free will and the subsequent sins committed
by human beings. I showed that human sin is not sufficient to explain all
suffering. We also looked at natural causes. Much suffering is the
result of forces set in motion by God, without which there would be no
life. For one to fault God in this, one must conceive of a better system
of natural laws by which to govern a universe. In this, the second part
of the essay I will complete a discussion of the apologetic issue by
asking if pain, death and suffering itself are in and of themselves evil.
Let the reader be reminded that there will be no simple answer to these
questions. Lastly, we will consider suffering as a human issue and what
the Christian response to suffering should be.
Are These Things Inherently Evil?
The one who raises the apologetic issue of the problem of pain
and suffering probably makes the assumption that such things as pain,
death and suffering are, by definition, evil and evidence that something
is “wrong” with the world because of these things. Wrong, that is, if we
assume that God is real. In this section, I will call into the question
this assumption. None of us looks forward to experiencing pain, of
course, but is the existence of pain, even horrendous pain, a bad thing?
What about death? Is the death of human beings evidence of a lack of love
on the part of the Creator? And then there is suffering of an emotional
or physical nature. Does the existence of these things call into question
the omnipotence of the love of the one who oversees all things?
Is Pain Evil?
It is hard to think of pain as a good thing. In fact, we have
a word for the kinds of people who seek pain for its own sake. We call
them masochists. Some ascetics have taught that physical pain is a
positive spiritual good, leading one closer to God. Most famously,
certain Catholic groups have practiced self-flagellation and other forms
of pain-infliction as a spiritual exercise. It is extremely difficult to
support such practices using the Bible. Paul tells us that “harsh
treatment of the body? lack[s] any value in restraining sensual
indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23)
But that is not the question. Is the existence of human pain
an evil? Many who attack the Christian God would have us think so. They
point us to examples of chronic pain, calling on our sentiments, demanding
to know how God can allow such suffering. Perhaps they have a good
point. Let us imagine for a moment a world without the sensation of
pain. Actually, there exist a very small proportion of people who are
born without the ability to experience pain. These people are very
fortunate, right? The answer is a definite no. A person who cannot feel
pain is in constant mortal danger. If they pick up a hot frying pan, they
do not know it until they smell their own burning flesh. If they overeat
to dangerous levels, they are unaware. In fact, they are in danger of
death. If they break a bone without feeling pain, permanent disfiguring
injury is the likely result.
Pain is a good thing. It was created (or evolved, depending
on your perspective) so that we can thrive. If one suffers a sprained
ankle, it is a very good thing that this is painful. Lepers lose the
ability to feel pain. Let us ask one if they are happy they have lost the
ability to feel pain in their extremities. Bottom line, pain prevents
dangerous behaviors. The anticipation of pain prevents us from doing harm
to our bodies. A headache is a sign from our bodies that all is not well?
it is time to lower the stress level. A toothache is a warning to favor
that tooth and to seek care for it.
Even emotional pain is often God?s way to help us prevent self-harming
behaviors. When we experience hatred and anger, it is painful. This pain
can cause us to avoid being around those who would harm us. It can also
teach us to not treat others this way. Emotional pain is a warning
against sinful behaviors and a signal to flee emotionally harmful
situations. Who said pain is evil?
Having said all that, let us admit that there are still examples of pain
which are philosophically and emotionally hard to accept. The sight of a
loved one suffering in extreme agony in the death-throes of cancer is hard
to accept as a good thing. There are a number of nervous system syndromes
which produce prodigious pain without a corresponding protection from
dangerous behavior. It is not my intent to “explain” all these
situations, but I would simply point out that the alternative is certainly
far worse. A world without pain?even extreme pain?is not a better one
than that which we live in. Speaking for myself, I do not think I could
improve on the world God has created, but I am thankful that he has given
human beings the ability to discover and invent compounds which can
relieve the kinds of pain mentioned above.
Is Death Evil?
On the face of it, one will have to admit that the existence
of death seems like an evil thing. At the very least, it certainly is
sad, and it unquestionable leads to suffering, at least on the part of
those who are left behind to mourn the loss of a loved one. What is the
biblical view of death, and is that view reasonable?
Death is a big part of nature?some of it grisly and
urbing. Skeptics of Christianity have pointed out the merciless
violence and death in nature as proof of the pointlessness of life. They
have also used it as evidence that the God of the Bible cannot be real.
How can a loving God allow cute little bunnies to be savagely killed by
mangy looking coyotes?
My response to this question is to point to the beauty of the system God
has created. It is through life, reproduction and death that species
change, adapt and improve. Without programmed death, life itself would
end. The lion improves the gazelle as it mercilessly culls the weak and
dying. Life cannot exist without reactive molecules which inevitably
cause damage. Oxygen is necessary to animal life, but it is also very
corrosive. The same processes which allow for life inevitable cause
death. My response to the sentimental argument of the skeptic with regard
to animal suffering is to ask this person to propose a better system which
actually works. If anyone can create a self-sustaining system on paper
which offers improvement, I challenge them to come forward with this
system. I further challenge this person to create this system ex nihilo
(out of nothing) as God did.
I will be honest with you. If my pet poodle were killed by a merciless
coyote, I would be very sad about that. If a merciless driver of a car is
substituted, my feelings would not change very much. However, I do not
fault God for creating a world in which death is a part, and I definitely
do not feel that it would have been better if Alex had never been born.
Despite the reality of death, I still believe that life is better than
The death of conscious beings?humans?raises somewhat different questions.
Let us look at what the Bible says about physical death and then ask
whether this agrees with reason. Paul said in Philippians 1:21-22, “For
me to live is Christ, to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the
body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I
do not know!” Is Paul crazy? The answer is that if he is right, he is
not crazy but honest. The conclusion that the death of a conscious being
is an evil thing requires the assumption that physical death is the final
end. We are dead like Rover, dead all over. Paul declares, with the
other New Testament writers, that there will be a resurrection at the end
of days. “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face
judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) If Paul is wrong then death is tragic. If
Paul is right then for a follower of Jesus it marks a transition to
something far more glorious than life confined to our physical bodies.
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown
is perishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown
in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is
raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
For those who are in Christ, death is not an evil thing at all. God has
words for those of us who are left behind when a loved one departs as
well. “Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they
lie in death.” (Isaiah 57:2) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will
be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) If the Bible is true then death is not a
final ending. It is a transition. Unfortunately, for those who abuse
their free will, the final state will be one of judgment. No one will be
happy about that, including God. However, even the fact that judgment
will occur does not make death an evil thing.
To the atheist, death makes life appear futile. But even for the atheist,
to live and to die is better than to have not lived at all. That being
said, the atheist is wrong. Death is not evil because death is not the
end. There is a God and there is life after death. God has given proof
of this by raising Jesus from the dead. “For he has set a day when he
will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has
given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts
17:31). Death is a cause for sadness, but death is not evil. Death makes
all of life precious, including the suffering we experience.
Is Suffering Evil?
I will make the case that suffering is not a bad thing. All
the suffering in our life is either caused by God or is allowed by God,
but in either case, suffering is not evil. Suffering is good. It is a
gift from God. If there is no life after death, then perhaps death is
evil. If life is meaningless?a mere chasing after the wind, then perhaps
suffering is evil as well. But life is not meaningless. And suffering,
as we will see below, is very meaningful.
Let us consider several reasons that suffering is not inherently evil at
all?that it is in fact a moral good.
1. No Suffering, No Joy.
If we think about it we will realize that without suffering in our life,
there is no joy. David expresses this truth in Psalms 30:5. “For his
anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may
remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” A warm house
feels wonderful when we come out of the cold. A meal tastes infinitely
better when we are famished. A brand new love is made all the more
delicious because we have waited in loneliness for so long. Success is
incredibly sweet when we have suffered with repeated failure. Without
failure, success loses all its ability to satisfy. Without pain and
suffering we would not know or recognize pleasure or joy. This is how we
were made. It is how we work. For those who do not know God, it may be
that joy endures for the night, but weeping comes in the morning, but for
those who pour their life out in service to God and to fellow-humans,
weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. To the
one who says suffering is evil, I ask whether they believe that joy is
Again, let us be honest about this. There are kinds of suffering which do
not lead to joy, but most do; especially for those who are in a
relationship with God. In fact, suffering increases our joy. It makes it
2. Suffering leads to growth and to good character.
As the truism goes; no pain, no gain. We did not appreciate it when our
parents quoted this proverb, but almost all of us have realized its truth
by now. We have all watched the mother who expends all of her energy
protecting her little charges from all possible sources of displeasure or
pain. We watch in horror because we know where a life without pain and
suffering inevitably leads. It produces a spoiled, ungrateful, selfish
The teaching that suffering is from God and that it can produce good
rather than evil is found just about anywhere one looks in the Bible.
Paul tells us in Romans 5:3, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our
sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;
perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not
disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the
Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Even the agnostic recognizes the truth
of what Paul says here. James tells us to, “Consider it pure joy, by
brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that
the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish
its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Think about the greatest human beings who have lived. All of them
suffered tremendously. We do not respect those who are not willing to
suffer for a cause, yet some people say that suffering is evil?that it is
a sign that God is either not all
-powerful or not all-loving.
We should bear in mind, however, that not all suffering gives opportunity
for growth. This is not the silver bullet to the problem of suffering.
Suffering which leads to immediate death does not produce growth?at least
not for that individual. Besides there are kinds of suffering which our
heart tells us cannot possibly be compensated sufficiently by the good
produced in human characters. Nevertheless, the claim that suffering
somehow disproves the God of the Bible is not holding up well to careful
3. Our suffering brings praise and glory to God.
As a good parent, God does not delight in our suffering. However, God
tells us that for several reasons, our suffering can bring praise, honor
and glory to Him, and that is a good thing. A classic example of this
concept is found in John chapter nine. We have already looked at this
passage when proving that not all suffering is caused by sin. Let us
consider it in the present context. Why did God allow this man to be born
blind? Jesus told them that “this happened so that the work of God might
be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3) This works two ways. One person?s
godly response to suffering might be just the thing that brings another
person to God. That certainly has been the case with the suffering of
Jesus Christ! Besides, our own suffering may be the only thing God can
use to bring us to our knees. God is not unwilling to bring suffering
into our lives if it will cause us to turn to him for help. When we do
so, he is waiting to offer salvation. This is certainly the case with the
man born blind in John nine.
I have taught on this very point to more than one audience. I have asked
those in attendance how many of them were made open to becoming a
Christian because of some kind of crisis or suffering in their life. Over
half the hands in the room go up. I believe that every one of these
people would state with all their hearts that it was worth the suffering
if it led them to knowing Christ and ultimately to heaven. In view of
eternity, “our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an
eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
Does the glory which is brought to God truly outweigh the suffering which
brings it on? A close friend of my family had become a Christian but
drifted far away. Perhaps as a consequence of this, or perhaps not, her
daughter got into some very dangerous situations. One day a few years
later I got the kind of call none of us ever wants to receive. Her
daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend, right in front of their
child. I was asked to preach as the funeral. What could I say in such a
situation? This is about as horrendous a situation as I can imagine.
Through this unimaginable suffering, our friend is now a faithful
Christian and her grandson is being raised in a Christian home. Was the
praise and glory brought to God worth the suffering involved? Personally,
I do not think I can answer this question. There is no easy answer to the
problem of pain and suffering, but there are answers.
4. (Virtually) all suffering can be used for the good in the end.
If suffering is in fact evil, it is only because those who
suffer do not learn and grow from the suffering. Those who have suffered
from child abuse can turn the pain into conviction to do good. They can
also use their suffering as an opportunity to help those who have been the
victim of similar abuse. Let us remember, though, that this does not make
sin good. Even if we can turn evil into an opportunity to do good, it
does not make the original act any less sinful. It just shows the beauty
of the system God has established. This idea is expressed wonderfully in
Romans 8:28. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of
those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Notice that God is not telling us that all things are good. He is telling
us that in all things, God can work for good if we will let him.
Even if sin is the cause of suffering, the suffering is always an
opportunity to do good. If violence leads to a cycle of more violence,
that is not God?s fault. If an evil thought leads to an evil action,
which leads down a trail of depravity, it does not have to be so. Every
“evil” is an opportunity for God. This is God?s plan. Either way,
suffering is not inherently evil. God can work great things through our
suffering. Let me offer a piece of advice. If you find someone who is
involved in some sort of intense suffering ,do not pull out Romans 8:28 on
that person. We need to be careful how we judge situations. It is best
to let the person discover for themselves how God can work through their
pain in the long run.
Is the ultimate good which can come from any kind of suffering, be it
physical or emotional the bottom line answer to the philosophical and
apologetic question of suffering? Probably not. There are tragedies so
horrendous that it seems patronizing to say, “No problem, God can use that
for the good.” It seems unreasonable to explain the genocide of the Pol
Pot regime in Cambodiaby the ultimate good which can come of it. I
believe Romans 8:28 applies best to personal situations for believers in
God. Nevertheless, for those who have the perspective of God, all
suffering can work out for the good in the long run. Suffering is not
5. Suffering is the natural result of doing good.
The Jews had a general belief that suffering is a punishment from God for
some sort of sin. This belief carried over into European culture until
modern times. In some cases, they have a point. God used Assyria and
Babylonto judge his people for their idolatry and hard hearts.
Nevertheless, the idea that suffering in this life is punishment is
generally not true. The New Testament perspective is that hardship and
suffering are as sign of and the natural result of doing good. The
ultimate example of this, of course, is the life of Jesus Christ. As
Peter puts it, “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this
is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ
suffered for you, leaving you and example that you should follow in his
steps. (1 Peter 2:20-21). Suffering for doing good is not punishment from
God. It is the crown of a righteous life. Paul made a similar statement.
He put it very simply, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ
Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)
I have not yet met anyone who gets fired up about suffering. Perhaps I
will meet just such a masochist some day. However, when we suffer for
doing good, this can be a source of great encouragement. Our histories
are full of examples of people we deeply admire. Why?
Because they chose to suffer so that they could make a difference. Such
suffering is not evil.
Obviously this point does not explain all suffering, but it can provide
some perspective for us about the nature of suffering in general. We
should not seek suffering for its own state, but we can rejoice in our
suffering. “Blessed (happy) are you when people insult you, persecute you
and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and
be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way the y
persecuted the prophets who were before you.
6. Through suffering we come to know Christ and to fulfill his purpose.
Through suffering, those who are in Christ come to know Christ. Through
suffering they experience Christ. Through suffering, they complete the
work of Jesus. This may sound almost blas
phemous, but it is biblical. In
preparing this study, it was the discovery of this concept which changed
my own thinking about suffering the most. In my studies, I have found this
theme to be a very common one in the New Testament. I will share just a
couple of the relevant passages. Consider Colossians 1:24-27.
Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what
is still lacking in regard to Christ?s afflictions, for the sake of his
body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission
God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness?the mystery
that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed
to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the
glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Paul hoped to fill up in his flesh what was still lacking with regard to
the sufferings of Jesus. There is a sense in which we complete what was
started by Jesus. This helps us both to know Christ and to help others to
come to know him. Paul is not saying that Christ?s suffering was
insufficient. Rather he says that for us personally, and to some extent
for others as well, it is completed, matured, filled up, realized. In our
suffering we really come to know Christ.
As humans, we understand this concept intuitively. The most powerful
relationships are created through suffering. The idea of great
relationships being forged through suffering for a great cause is
proverbial. The sports team which endures adversity, even if it does not
reach the ultimate plateau of success, is the one which creates the
closest bonds. All of us know the stories of lifelong friendships forged
between those who share the same foxhole. It is through suffering
together that a real family is forged.
Another of the many passages along this line is Philippians 3:10-11. “I
want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship
of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so,
somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Paul is not
teaching a new doctrine?that our suffering saves us. He is explaining how
he came to a fantastically deep understanding of Jesus. It was through
suffering. It is hard to think of anyone who suffered more than Paul. He
was flogged many times, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, nearly
starved to death. All this, and his greatest suffering was his deep
concern for the churches he had planted. Yet, Paul was one of the most
joyful people who ever lived. Why? Through suffering, he came to know
Christ. In this there is great joy. Let us not avoid suffering. Do not
seek it for its own sake, but welcome it as the surest means to come to
the most profound place any human being can reach?knowing Christ.
For those who live in a physical body, as we do, suffering is not evil. In
fact, for those in the human condition, suffering is good, not evil.
There are kinds of suffering which are hard to understand. We cannot
simply state platitudes and make all the emotional and rational problems
associated with suffering simply disappear. However, in the big picture,
suffering is not evil. It is as much a gift of God as any of his other
creations. Does the existence of pain prove that there is no God, or at
least that the one who exists in not completely powerful or loving? What
about the stark reality of death? Does the existence of suffering draw
into question the omnipotence and the love of God? The answer is an
This completes the section of the essay on the apologetic question of
suffering and evil. The last installment will be a discussion on the
human aspect of suffering. The question to be addressed is, what should
our response to suffering be?
John Oakes, PhD To argue that suffering is evil and to therefore dismiss the God of
the Bible is to make a circular argument. Suffering is only evil if there
is no purpose/moral imperative to life, but this is only true if God does
not exist. Therefore the argument from suffering that God is evil does
not make sense as suffering can only be evil if the God of the Bible does
not exist.  The suffering of Jesus for doing good was foreshadowed in the lives of
many of the Old Testament figures, especially that of Joseph.
Part III Suffering: A Human Problem.
Human pain and suffering raises an apologetic problem. How can the idea
of a loving and powerful God be consistent with the existence of evil,
pain and suffering in the world? Although I have not given “the answer” to
this problem, I believe I have shown that this problem can be answered.
Pain and suffering are not inherently evil. A very powerful and loving
God created an amazing universe which supports advanced forms of life and
persons in that universe who have been given the freedom to choose to love
God or to do evil.
But pain and suffering human problems as well. What should our response
be to the pain and suffering which exist everywhere we look in the world?
An individual?s answer will depend on his or her world view. Our theology
will play a major role in determining our response to the suffering around
Let us consider the world view of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern
religions. Of course, it is simplistic to summarize the world view of
these religions and the people who ostensibly believe in them. Eastern
religions include Confucianism, Shinto, Jaina, Taoism, Sikkhism and
others. The Hindu world view is that the physical world is an illusion.
The word used to describe physical reality is maya. According to Hindu
theology, this world is an illusion, and a deceptive one at that. The
goal of human beings is to see around this illusion in order to detect the
deeper spiritual reality?to experience Brahman. Brahman is the ultimate
reality. The concept of maya is common to Jainism, Sikkhism and Buddhism
as well. According to this concept, our suffering is an illusion. The
goal of Buddhism is to end suffering. The eight fold path is a means to
escape suffering by learning to overcome and eliminate desire.
So, according to Eastern religion in general (and please remember that
this is a simplification), human suffering is an illusion. The goal is to
overcome suffering by transcending it, not necessarily by relieving it.
This may or may not sound like an attractive philosophy, but it is not
hard to imagine how this way of thinking can affect one?s response to
suffering. I was in Indiarecently on a teaching visit. One thing which
became striking was that a great proportion of all the benevolent work
done in the country is supported by Christian groups, despite the fact
that Christians make up less than one percent of the population. Of
course, there are some very caring Hindus, but it is not surprising, given
their world view, that so many of the basic physical needs as well as
issues of social justice remain unsolved in India. The same can be said
for most countries in the Eastern world. When suffering is viewed as an
illusion it certainly is easier to ignore the suffering around us.
What is the world view of Islam? Unfortunately, most Westerner?s view of
Islam is shaped by their visceral exposure to terrorism in the news
media. Few understand the basic tenets of Islam. One teaching of Islam
which is relevant to the problem of pain and suffering is predestination.
The view of the Qur?an is that Allah is a distant God who does not get
involved in worldly affairs. When evil happens, it is God?s will. The
Arabic term is inshallah. It is the will of Allah.
traditionally produced an extreme attitude of fatalism. Whatever happens
it is inshallah?God?s will. It is not difficult to see how this world
view might affect one?s response to suffering. This can cause a cavalier
attitude about the suffering and even death of those who are not in one?s
To be fair to Islam, another important aspect of the religion should be
mentioned. One of the five pillars of Islam (along with confession,
prayer, fasting and pilgrimage) is almsgiving. This almsgiving is
intended, in part, to help the poor. The institution tends to be
impersonal, but Muslims do have some notable programs to alleviate
poverty. The dichotomy between the teaching on almsgiving and the
theology of fatalism has caused the response of Islam to suffering be hard
to stereotype. The word which comes to mind is impersonal. As with
Buddhists, there are obviously some very caring people who profess Islam,
but the question to be asked here is what is the world view and what is
the common attitude spawned by that world view.
And then there is the world view of atheism. Because atheism is not a
formal religion, it will be hard to characterize the world view of
atheists (outside of the obvious, which is that they assume there is no
God). The most well-known political system spawned by atheism is
communism. To the atheist, the individual person is born, lives and
dies. That is the end of the story. There is no inherent meaning to the
individual life. In communism, the individual is not valued. The dreams
and desires of a single person are not considered to be important. What
is important is what is good for the community?however that is defined.
It should not come as a complete surprise that the Pol Pot regime murdered
over two million souls in Cambodia, or that the Soviets killed over twenty
million in their gulags, only to be outdone by the estimated thirty
million lives snuffed out by the communist regime in China. I am sure
there are some really warm and loving communists out there, but I have not
yet met one. Obviously, not all atheists can be characterized that way,
but the philosophical underpinning of atheism tends to produce a cynical
and cold view of human beings, with its obvious affect on how those who
are suffering are treated.
What is the Christian world view, and how ought it to affect the
individual Christian?s response to suffering? The Christian world view
can be defined by the teachings and the actions of Jesus Christ, but let
us go back into the Old Testament to get started. Greek philosophy and
Eastern religion view this world as an illusion or a secondary reality.
The physical reality is inherently bad. The goal of religion is to escape
the gross, degenerate, decaying physical world to enter the higher world
of the mind or the spirit. On the other hand, we see in Genesis chapter
one that when God finished his work of creation he saw that it was good?
very good (Genesis 1:31). The physical world is not inherently evil. It
was created by the same God who created the human soul and the angels and
heaven. The physical world is a place to find enjoyment. It is not a
place from which we must to escape to find the deeper, spiritual reality.
God wanted his people Israelto experience physical blessings as well as
spiritual oneness with him.
From the Christian world view, suffering is not an illusion. It is a
reality to which we must respond. What should our response be?
Compassion! Let us consider a biblical response to pain and suffering.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require
of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your
God.” We do not see a distant, aloof God here, but one who is involved
emotionally with his people. He expects us to behave in the same manner.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to
look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from
being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27) The Christian response to pain
and misery is to alleviate the suffering as much as we can. We do this,
not because suffering is evil. In fact, we already know that people can
grow and come closer to God through suffering. We show compassion to
those who suffer because that is what God does. It is the natural
response of love. It is the response of a parent for a child.
Pain and suffering and loss are a visceral experience. They elicit great
emotion. We should hurt with those who hurt. We should suffer with those
who suffer. Human nature causes us to want to pull back?to protect
ourselves from experiencing the suffering of others, but that is not what
Jesus did. What was Jesus? response when he beheld the sobs of Mary over
the death of Lazarus? He was deeply moved and troubled in spirit. “Jesus
wept.” (John 11:35) Why was Jesus so sad? He knew that Lazarus was about
to be raised from the dead. Jesus was greatly moved because that is the
Christian response to suffering. God weeps when we weep. This is no
distant Allah who is far above all human emotion. We see no Buddhist
escape from human attachment. No! We see the greatest kind of human
God understands our suffering and our emotional response to it. “During
the days of Jesus? life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with
loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was
heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he
learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became
the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7,8)
When we suffer, God does not mind at all if we cry out to him. Surely,
watching others suffering is problematic for us. I know it is for me.
Often I do not agree with God allowing some of the evil and suffering in
Jesus did not hesitate to cry out to God in the garden because of his
suffering. God is the loving parent who wants to hear our complaints.
Listen to Asaph?s complaint to God: “This is what the wicked are like?
always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my
heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I
have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” (Psalm 73:13-14).
God does not rebuke Asaph for his complaints. He listens. He
understands. An emotional response to suffering is not wrong. It is
expected. Those who suffer or mourn need someone to listen to them, not
to rebuke them for their feelings. God?s response should be our response,
which is to listen and to show compassion. Habakkuk complains to God,
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry
out to you, ?Violence!? but you do not save? Why do you make me look at
injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3) God does not
duck the question of suffering and injustice in the world. He wants to
hear our lament. This, of course, should be our response to suffering as
well. Compassion and listening are in order.
My favorite Old Testament passage along these lines is Jeremiah 12:1.
“You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I
would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked
prosper?” This may sound like an impudent rebel speaking against his
master. However, this is not the case. What we have here is a son who
feels comfortable bringing his complaint to God. Why? Because he knows
God well enough to anticipate receiving God?s compassion. Godwants to
hear. Jesus felt this same safety in expression his fear and his
suffering to his father. “My soul is overwhelmed with
sorrow to the point
of death.” My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 26:38, 39, 27:46).
Suffering may not be evil, but it is real. It requires the Christian
response, which is compassion.
Having answered the apologetic question of pain and evil and suffering,
this is the key remaining question with regard to human suffering: What am
I going to do about those around me who suffer physically and
emotionally? How did I respond to suffering today? What actions did I
take this week? Did I turn my eyes away? Do I purposefully align my life
so that I can view as little suffering as possible? Am I making a
difference? Am I part of the solution? The Christian view of suffering
is that we need to respond with compassion and with action to bear the
burdens of those who suffer around us.
Let us look one more time at Jesus and his compassion for God?s people.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their
synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every
disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Then he said to his disciple, ?The harvest is plentiful, but the workers
are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into
his harvest field. (Matthew 9:35-38)
Many of us are used to thinking of verse thirty-eight as being about
evangelism, and perhaps it is, but in this context, the work Jesus is
asking his followers to do is to show compassion on the harassed and
helpless. This is the Christian response to the problem of pain and
Another glimpse of Jesus and his heart for the plight of human beings can
be gained in Matthew 23:37. Jesus looked at Jerusalemand the people who
were about to reject and kill him:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to
you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen
gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Jesus had a boundless source of compassion for every kind of person. He
did his best to alleviate physical suffering. He set an example of loving
and reaching out to those who suffered emotionally. He modeled this life
style and he expected those who followed him to do the same.
Again, each of us should ask ourselves individually, what am I doing?what
am I doing about those around me who are hurting? Physical suffering is
more obvious, but emotional pain–chronic fear, loss, loneliness, mourning?
these are more prevalent and often more devastating. Are we following the
example of Jesus in meeting these needs?
Let me suggest a few things NOT to do about the problem of pain and
1. Teach people to avoid suffering.
2. Tell people who are in the midst of great suffering that it is good
3. Simply tell people to pray about it (without taking steps to relieve
4. Tell people who suffer that it is their fault. (even if this is true,
it is not our place to
judge and besides it is better for people to reach this conclusion
A few suggestions for what we should do:
1. Be like Job. Live with integrity and in faith in God despite your own
2. Forgive those who have wronged you.
3. Demonstrate empathy to those who suffer, rather than give them
4. Find ways to alleviate poverty both locally and in the developing
world. Try to do thisin the most personal way possible.
5. When presented with physical needs, either meet them, or find someone
6. Help prevent crime, avoid polluting, prevent accidents, find ways to
make the world a more just place, find ways to help prevent addiction and
7. Find ways to show empathy to those who are suffering through things
suffered through in the past. Turn your past suffering into an
opportunity to show compassion.
Pain and suffering are not evil. They are part of God?s plan for working
in this world. This does not give us an excuse to sit idle when those
around us are struggling with these things. They are an opportunity to
make a difference?to show the heart of Jesus Christ. Let us follow the
example of Christ. Let us “Carry each other?s burdens, and in this way
you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) “Therefore, as we
have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” (Galatians 6:10) We
cannot solve the problem of pain and suffering, but let us do what we can
to demonstrate the love and the compassion of Jesus Christ.
John Oakes 12/15/2006