The Problem of Pain and Suffering Part II

John Oakes



            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

            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

Even emotional pain is often God?s way to help us prevent self-harming behaviors.  Wh
en 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


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 disturbing.  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 non-life.

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

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.[1] 

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 good.

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 alive.


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 brat. 

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 inspection.


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 beli
eve 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 inherently evil.


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.[2]  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 blasphemous, 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.  Pau
l 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?  Throu
gh 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.  Howe
ver, 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 emphatic no.

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.  Th
e question to be addressed is, what should our response to suffering be?

John Oakes, PhD


[1] To argue that suffering is evil and to therefore dismiss the God of the
Bible is to make a circular argument. 

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