Pain and Suffering: The Problem Of Evil
The Problem of Evil can be a broad and intellectual subject while at the same time being an extremely personal matter; as such we will look at this issue from two different vantage points. We will cover the logical defense for the problem of evil, though personally I don’t like the logical defense for the problem of pain and suffering which you will see in debates with William Lane Craig, John Lennox, and others; I dislike it not because this approach is flawed or is a poorly formed defense—it does provide good reasons for the necessary existence of pain and suffering, but because I find it cold and lacking heart, as I expect many who are suffering probably will as well. So while the logic does answer the problem of pain intellectually, it fails mightily to address the ‘why’ in a satisfying way; it is the good news of the ‘why’ we will also address.
Pain and Suffering
In preparation for this article I read two C. S. Lewis books, A Grief Observed and The Problem of Pain, to get a sense of the size and scope of the subject matter. A Grief Observed addresses the topic of pain and suffering while also being one of the best marriage books I have read; The Problem of Pain, while densely packed, is a wonderful resource for study on this topic as well. As we will discover there is no definitive answer to this question and certainly no short answer to which we can point and say, “This is why we suffer.” Sorry, there are only more questions. What I love about C.S. Lewis, as well as David in the Psalms and Job, in, well, Job, is the questioning, the anger, and the frustration they direct at God, but ultimately the hope and trust they place in God: the realization that through it all God is compassionate, loving, patient and approachable . . . but He is still God, and He owes us nothing.
C. S. Lewis married Joy Gresham in March of 1957 at her bedside while she was in Churchill Hospital, after already being joined in a civil marriage so she could stay in England in April of 1956. Before their marriage in 1957, Joy had complained of hip pain and after seeing a doctor was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Her cancer went into remission and they lived the happy couple until 1960 when her cancer came back and took her life a short time later. Lewis’s brother, Warren, wrote of their relationship:
“The attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met … who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.“
In response to her death, Lewis would write and later publish A Grief Observed under the pseudonym of N. W. Clerk in the hope he would not be associated with a book which was so personal and emotionally raw. Lewis did not include any names in the book, only initials; ironically it was Lewis to whom his friends would recommend this book in order to help him cope with his grief.
I want to spend some time showing the cycle Lewis went through after his wife’s death using his own words from A Grief Observed because these are all questions and statements we would ask about God or say to God in the days and months during and after a tragedy. God is ever patient and loving, yet seemingly silent and absent at times as Lewis shows here.
“Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
“The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
“What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”
“Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?”
“But oh God, tenderly, tenderly. Already, month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel whilst she still wore it. Is it not yet enough?”
“But they say these things are sent to try us. But of course one must take ‘sent to try us’ the right way. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.”
“The notes have been about myself, and about H., and about God. In that order. The order and the proportions exactly what they ought not to have been.”
“I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H., not something that is like her. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle. To me, however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images—sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. “
“Am I, for instance, just sidling back to God because I know that if there’s any road to H., it runs through Him? But then of course I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.”
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”
“Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.”
“To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.”
Some people after reading those excerpts may view his writings as containing no answer at all to the question of pain and suffering, but I believe the answers manifest in stages: a man crippled by grief, a man doubting God and God’s existence at times, and a man questioning God’s character. Upon further examination they also reveal a man not destroyed by his grief, a man who while questioning the circumstances and outcome is being shown things about God, and finally a man who in the end finds comfort in God. Lewis was not granted some wonderful answer about pain and grief, but instead he realized in the end: trust or don’t because sometimes the answers aren’t for us to know or understand; and, as Lewis stated above, we are almost certainly asking the wrong questions.
Let’s look at pain and suffering in a different light through a story attributed to the Chinese leader, Chou En Lai:
‘There was once a farmer who had just one son in the days right before the War. Having only one horse, the farmer and son worked long hard days, sun up to sun down, just to get by, with nothing left to spare. One day as the father and son plowed the fields, their horse got spooked and ran off. The son was devastated; “What bad luck, now what will we do?”
The father replied; “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.”
The father and son continued to work the farm. Then one day their horse comes running back over the hill with 6 other horses. The son exclaimed, “What great luck, now we have all the horses we’ll ever need!”
To which the farmer replied; “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.”
The next day as the farmer and son were working with the horses, one particularly difficult horse threw the son off his back and broke his leg. The son cried: “Oh father, I am so sorry, now you have to work the farm all by yourself. What bad luck!”
Once again the father replied: “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.”
Several days later the War broke out and all the able-bodied young men were sent off to war. The farmer’s son, having a broken leg, was forced to stay at home. After the leg had healed, the father had the only farm around with a son to help and seven horses to boot. They worked the farm and prospered.’
What is illustrated here is that we cannot know the long term outcome of any one action. Think of ISIS, of the horrors and murders they commit, yet tens of thousands of Muslims are giving their lives to Jesus because they see the natural extension of their religion being carried out. This is more a confidence based on the result, that from the suffering and pain there is an overall good and seems to suggest that pain and suffering are understandable or acceptable because a greater good was achieved for many people as a result of the evil and suffering. I agree with both of them on some level: Lewis’s addressing the more personal side of grief and suffering, and Chou En Lai’s trying to find the unforeseen good as a result of pain and suffering.
I have had conversations on the topic of evil, pain, and suffering with several of my friends while around the campfire or at a coffee shop; here is what I tell them, beginning with the logical problem. Their arguments are based on the syllogism of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and—though informally stated—their objections follow his reasoning that:
- If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god exists, then evil does not.
- There is evil in the world.
- Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God does not exist.
There are two conclusions which can be drawn from the argument 1) there is no God because evil exists and/or 2) God is weak or unloving because He doesn’t stop evil. The basic rebuttal to this is called the Free-will Defense. This is the belief that evil is not brought about by God but by people to whom He has given the right to freely choose and that the reason God chose to give people free will was so people could choose to accept or reject Him rather than creating a world full of automatons, which while being free from evil would not be free in any real sense. In order to accept Epicurus’ argument a few things must be true:
- We must make the wild assumption that evil cannot exist because God.
- This is like saying, “fire cannot exist because water.”
- We must reason that God, being good, wants to eliminate all evil.
- We must assume from this that evil is completely bad
- We must ignore that good can come from evil
By looking at the logic of Epicurus in a more personal way we can ask some questions as parents to see if the conclusion holds. If our kids commit an evil act, does this mean we are now evil or unloving? If they lie, cheat, or steal, are we to blame and does this mean we don’t exist? If something bad happens to them, does this mean we don’t love and cherish them? C.S. Lewis put it this way,
“. . . because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
Bart Ehrman and Shelly Kagan, as well as your average man on the street, object to the free-will defense for another reason though. The problem they have surrounds the question of heaven: that if there is free-will in heaven but we cannot sin while there, then why can’t there be free-will on earth and no sin here? There are many ways to state their argument, but I chose this one by Vexen Crabtree, a satanist from Britain:
“The fact that there is both free will and no evil in heaven tells us that evil and suffering are not a requirement of free will. If there is no reason for suffering in heaven, then, God should instantly put everyone in heaven, where we would all continue to have free will, but also not suffer.”
One error in this argument is that it stems from the presupposition that God has no reason for allowing evil and should, therefore, not allow it; another is that God should remove the consequences of evil intent before they can cause harm; and the last error is the belief that the removal of the act somehow voids the sinfulness of the thought.
First, lets address the idea that because evil exists, there is no God; but wait, without God where do we get the idea of good or evil? We know there is evil in the world so there must be good; otherwise, how can one claim, for example, that torturing a child is evil, as opposed to just saying, “I would prefer you didn’t do that.” In other words, this leads to the Moral Argument, the idea that there are objective truths and the realization that evil exists is evidence for the existence of God, not a refutation of the existence of God. Without objective morals there is no right or wrong, good or evil; and without these the questions regarding the reasons for pain and suffering, while it can be asked, are meaningless. And if meaningless, then we are left with naturalism as an explanation—the belief that evil, pain, and suffering have no real meaning and are simply emotions or sensations experienced as chemical reactions in the brain in response to the pitiless indifference of the universe. What is missed or willfully ignored is the possibility that there is a significance to there being evil in the world; in other words, God allows evil to exist for a reason.
What would it look like if God stopped evil which involved a free will choice? Imagine a world where a bullet was fired at someone’s head. What happens? Well, in our world the bullet kills the person, but in this other world—the world where God stops the consequences of evil—this bullet merely turns to jello and falls harmlessly to the ground. What if a person wants to stab someone with a knife but God turns the knife into rubber? Okay, that doesn’t sound so bad at all, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that this world stops acting in a way that is logical and becomes a place where water cannot drown or where fire cannot kill—somehow burning is based on intentionality or the ramifications of an outcome. Notice that God cannot stop evil from being thought about in this world of jello bullets and rubber knives but can only stop the consequences; however, we are still sinning (Mark 7:21-22, Matthew 5:28) though unaware of the consequences our sin would bring. But without seeing the results of our cheating, lying, pettiness, cruelty, and greed; without seeing the pain we cause and the destruction these thoughts would bring it becomes very hard to recognize the need for a Savior; in this kind of world what would draw us to God? These would just be thoughts here one moment and gone the next without the action leading to consequences. Ignored here though is the fact that God’s righteousness cannot overlook the evil thought despite the fact that no evil was carried out.
God’s goal is our eternal salvation rather than earthly comfort, and to this end misery, suffering, and pain will often lead to our looking for a more meaningful answer. While our earthly focus to find joy, pleasure, and prosperity on earth are temporal or fleeting, which leads us to seek always and ever the next temporary fulfillment and then the next, this is not God’s goal or plan. Relationship and salvation are found only in and by Jesus, so God is using our circumstances, whatever they might be on earth, to push us toward a relationship with Him; is that not the act of a loving God? Ravi Zacharias sums this up nicely,
“There is a storyline and once understood, the storyline explains the contingencies: Where there is freedom there is the possibility of love, where there is love there is the possibility of pain, where there is pain there is the possibility of savior, where there is savior there is the possibility of redemption, where there is redemption there is the possibility of restoration.”
Who Is To Blame?
The world likes to demand that the Christian answer for why there is pain and suffering but doesn’t like the answer we give: that man is to blame; man sinned and the world is a mess because of us and our sin. Not liking the answer, the world then demands another answer, and the Christian is happy to provide an answer, which the world likes even less: Satan is the ruler of the world and seeks to steal, kill, and destroy. The world scoffs at this and responds, “Of course you Christians want to blame Satan, it lets your God off the hook.” And finally, having reached its own conclusion about who is to blame, the world points, shaking an angry finger at God, and says, “You are to blame.”
Often the atheist, agnostic, or seeker says that they can’t or won’t believe in a God who allows evil; while the Christian may turn away in dismay at the suffering in the world thinking that the God they thought they loved is either weak or unloving. So let’s address this with a bit of irony. How is it that people, in general, attribute all the good in the world or in their lives to chance or fate or luck but all the bad circumstances and events are laid upon God? Satan’s goal as stated in John 10:10 is, “to steal, kill and destroy,” and John 12:31 says of Satan that he is the “ruler of the world.” I can think of no better way to turn people away from God or to make them believe He is an evil or unloving God than to actively seek their destruction (floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks and etc.) and then have them point the finger of blame at God because the real culprit supposedly doesn’t exist? John Wilkinson in his book, Quakerism Examined, sums up this deception:
“One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist: another, perhaps equally fatal, is to make them fancy that he is obliged to stand quietly by, and not to meddle with them.”1
People will often point out though that if God is sovereign, the evil which Satan commits must be somehow sanctioned by God; therefore, God is still to blame. I would begin by saying there is nothing Satan can do or plans to do which surprises God; so, yes, God is sovereign. He knows now, as He has known in eternity past and forward, what Satan plots and schemes, and what a great confidence this fact should give us. God knows best how to use the plans of Satan to “steal, kill and destroy,” as ruler of the world, for the glory of God.
The heart of the issue is that people confuse permitting with causing and how this relates to the idea of intentionality: that an intended or perceived good can result in harm, or conversely that an intended or perceived harm can be good. Pain, suffering, and evil are much the same; not every evil, as we think of evil, is bad; just as not every good, as we think of good, is beneficial. A circumstance is allowed and used by God for God’s future glory and plans, that though tragic in a human sense they aren’t surprises to God. Satan plans without the foresight and foreknowledge God has. God doesn’t plan evil, Satan does; God does allow it but for the forging of a relationship not destruction for the joy or sake of destruction. It is through the tragedy and horror of cancer, car wreck, tornado, flood, terrorist attack, and so on that we may see, if granted, where and how God is working and touching people. The real trick here is that Satan has gotten people to believe that he is not real and so he cannot be the cause.
Is hell torture or punishment?
Hardly anyone objects to the statement that Hitler, Stalin, terrorists, or serial killers deserve to go to hell; this is a gut reaction; therefore, the problem people have isn’t the idea of hell as a punishment, but rather that good people are sent there and these good people are lumped in with those who commit atrocities. Their badness doesn’t rise to the same level as say, Hitler, who killed millions, and so because of this, their punishment in hell rises to the level of torture. In other words, theirs is a view that only people whose actions rise to a certain level of evilness or abhorrence deserve hell—not good people; to do otherwise is unjustified and thus torture. So how could a good God send good people to hell for eternity when they clearly don’t deserve it unless of course, this good God finds some kind of satisfaction in it as He sits up there in heaven on His throne saying, “You didn’t love me so you can go to hell”?
First, I would ask the person if they believe God is torturing or punishing? We will look at both to see how each belief reflects a particular view of God.
Torture: “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.”
Torture is unmerited, in other words, a person being tortured did nothing to deserve it. So when hell is viewed as torture it then becomes unjustified so long as the person has committed no crime, but this is contrary to Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” However, the main issue with placing this label (torturer) on God is the idea that God somehow enjoys doing this. Can we see this anywhere in the Bible? For instance, Ezekiel 18:32 says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone”, declares the Lord God; “so turn, and live.” The word for death means to die, but also includes to “die as a penalty.” So while God is carrying out a judgment, He takes no pleasure in this. In 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The word here for perish is apollymi and means “to destroy or to give over to the misery of hell.” Torture is an arbitrary act, so to claim God is like this is to label God a sadist while evidence points to the contrary (Joel 2:12-13, Matthew 11:28, John 3:15-16, Acts 3:18-21, James 4:6-10).
Punishment: “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.”
Punishment in contrast to torture (which seems to involve little or no thought by the torturer and no fault of the torturee) is simply a carrying out of a predetermined sentence for a crime. The punishment for the crime can be and, frankly, often is known beforehand (Romans 6:23). There is no surprise as to what the judgment will be, as opposed to torture, which is left up to the particular whim and mood of the person. With punishment there is no malice, no evil intent in carrying out the sentence; it is a simple meting out the penalty, no different than justice doled out by a legal system. A person could be an honest and loving individual ninety-nine percent of the time and yet commit first-degree murder or molest a child. Should this person not have to spend the rest of his life in prison or even forfeit his life? Would the same people who say hell isn’t fair allow this murderer or pedophile to simply say, “I am sorry, please forgive me,” then allow this person to freely roam the streets or invite them into their homes with family and friends for a dinner party?
God does exactly this; He allows a relationship with Him forever if we would but receive Him, repent, and ask forgiveness. Many will claim that this makes Jesus an exclusionist, that He only accepts those who accept Him, and while it is true salvation is conditional there is a difference; He invites all of us. Now the real exclusionist is the person who rejects Jesus, who seeks to keep their sinful self, and who then excludes Jesus from their life. The world chooses the second option, it fights for the freedom of personal choice and lives in disdain of the idea of personal consequences. Tragically, the world fails to recognize the reality that personal choice leads to the real possibility of an eternal and personal destruction. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain illustrates this beautifully:
“The demand that God should forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.“
As mentioned earlier, if there is no God then the questions of “fair or unfair, why is there evil, or why is there suffering everywhere” don’t matter; naturalism rules the day and so, they simply are. But if there is a God, then what arrogance it is to demand fairness and also a painless or trouble-free existence from Him; but not only that—not that they have the audacity to expect that they would be owed these things—but that they have the gall to think they are owed an explanation when they don’t receive them (Job 38-42).
Another common objection is one of multiple chances or opportunities: that if God would only give the person more time or more chances they would turn to Him; here again I refer to Lewis and his book, The Problem of Pain:
“A simpler form of the same objection consists in saying that death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance. I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come some time, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.”
Our faith and confidence must be placed in the knowledge that God knows, as hard as it might be to accept, that when a loved one dies—unsaved—they have been afforded every or enough chances to accept Him and though saddened by our loved one’s decision to reject God, the blame cannot be laid at the feet of God. These are hard things to hear for sure, but I can see it no other way. We saw above evidence for this, and it bears repeating here from Ezekiel 18:32, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone”, declares the Lord God; “so turn, and live.” And again in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
So why can’t everyone just go to heaven? A friend of mine asked this question about his father. He despises his father but was conflicted with the idea that his father will go to hell; his solution is that everyone should go to heaven but there would be a distinction or division of goodness in heaven: that everyone goes to heaven and no one is tortured for eternity. What is your answer to that?
My answer was to ask him if he invited his father over for Christmas dinner. He said he did not because he didn’t want to deal with all the baggage that came with his father: anger at his dad for the things he had done, his father’s domineering and arrogant attitude, and the strife it causes having his father around. I let his words hang in the air and waited. He nodded a few seconds later and he said, “I get it.” You see, heaven cannot be heaven if these things are present however well-intentioned the idea, because if God allowed a heaven such as this, it would be a mirror of what we live on earth; could we truly call that heaven?
God sends people to hell certainly, but He sends the people who chose to go there. He is granting their lifelong desire to be free of Him: free of His meddling in their life, free of His rules and commands, free to live apart from Him. But isn’t this exactly what they demand—choice—isn’t this what this loving God would necessarily do, to let them choose rather than forcing Himself upon them?
Who are these ‘good’ people?
Surely, good people who didn’t believe in God should be exempt from hell, right? We fundamentally have too high an opinion of ourselves and misunderstand what we are before salvation, and it is from this misconception that we have the wrong perception of what makes us good or bad; therefore, it is important to understand what we look like to God as sinners. Imagine our sinful state as though we are horrid, vile creatures, something akin to the zombies from The Walking Dead. What ‘good’ is there about those creatures? There is no saying “I’m pretty good, or I’m better than . . .” Do you imagine you are better in appearance than that zombie next to you, that you are somehow less rotten or grotesque? The world thinks of goodness or evilness as some cosmic scale which they seek to end up on the correct side of. But the scale doesn’t tip at some point from good to evil, we don’t become evil as our bad deeds pile up until they outweigh our good ones (read more on this here). No, we are born dead, rotting and filthy, this is our natural state; dead is dead whether it can walk or not. It is only once we recognize and accept the horrible depravity of our condition that we begin to understand we cannot cleanse ourselves and that we are in need of someone, a Savior, to wash off the filth and bring us to life (Romans 3:23, Romans 3:10-18, Romans 6:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 10:9, Romans 10:13).
How God gets us to the point where we recognize this is the key to what we are discussing and is something C.S. Lewis refers to as ‘divine humility’ in The Problem of Pain:
“Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise. We are perplexed to see misfortune falling upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people—on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little tradespeople, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. Because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts.“
Should we begrudge God and His use of the tools which work best to bring about salvation to those wretched souls as we once were? The unsaved in their worldly perspective cannot conceive of good being accomplished though there is evil, of everlasting joy revealed through suffering, of peace found through grief, of reconciliation granted through sacrifice, yet God works ever and always toward this goal.
So what about the starving in Africa and kids with cancer, where is God there?
Christian organizations lead the way in helping with suffering in the world, and I believe it is this great need which points the world to God because the responsibility falls on Christians to feed the widows and orphans. It is through seeing Christians care about and act in the midst of tragedy—the same tragedies the world points as evidence that God is unloving. These are our opportunities to show that God is loving and that His people are doing His work.
What of things outside of our control, such as children dying of cancer. My wife and I watched a documentary called Batkid, in which through the help of the Make a Wish Foundation a boy changed the city of San Francisco for a day as thousands of people came out to see this little boy become “Batkid.” He saved a damsel in distress, stopped the Riddler from robbing a bank, and help arrest the Penguin. No ‘real’ arrests were made in the crowded streets, only good will and well wishes for his future health. People commented later about how this one act, done by Make a Wish, showed them what was missing from their lives: mercy, compassion, caring about someone else, the longing for something greater in their lives, and for the knowledge that they too needed saving. This is not to say that they recognized it was Jesus whom they needed but that they realized something was missing from their life.
On another occasion, we watched the documentary, Undefeated, about a football team in Tennessee. The documentary featured a father of four who had volunteered to coach a team of minority teens for the past six years. The message was that these young men are in desperate need of a father figure because they felt abandoned and worthless as young men. The coach believed that character was formed by doing the right thing always rather than sometimes, and he taught them that it was in doing the right thing that a boy becomes a man. The result of his influence was changed lives; and so it is for us as Christians—the call is for us to be the light which points to our Father as someone who can change lives in a world suffering and desperate for love.
The world points accusingly at God in judgement of Him and in so doing demands that He fix the world He created. God’s simple response is to point to the cross and to say, “I did.” The world sees suffering and claims this proves that God doesn’t care. God sees that suffering and says, “I have a plan.” You see, pain, suffering, and evil it is not evidence of a world where God doesn’t exist but rather is evidence of a world living apart from God, a world which chooses daily to live in opposition to God.
What about us?
What good then is pain and suffering for those of us who are Christians? We already recognized our need for a Savior, so why shouldn’t our lives be easy? Well, for one, Matthew 10:16-23 tells us we aren’t promised that (read more on that here). But still, how do we answer that? Sometimes pain is the only way a child learns to trust what you say or to get a child to realize that the reason you tell them not to do things is because you love them and don’t want them to get hurt. Why does God test us as He did Abraham? It can’t be because God is seeking to find out something about us. He puts us there not for His learning but rather for ours—an opportunity for us to see what we will do when challenged, where we need to grow, to understand that we will fall when not focused on Him but also that our faith in Him is not misplaced.
The seemingly senseless pain and suffering and evil aren’t a problem for Christians, but it is for the world.
Romans 8:28-30, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
This passage is a promise for Christians—not the unsaved. They have no such confidence and are driven to anger or despair because they lack a reason to hope. They require a concrete explanation for the problem of pain and suffering, yet they ignore this uncomfortable explanation when given.
As Christians we have a hope that good will be worked in whatever circumstance we face, maybe not now or soon or even in our lifetime, but it will come. This is our confidence and should be our example to the world; it’s not that we are detached from pain and grief and anger, but that these are only human emotions and not hopelessness or despair in our God. It is a promise that it will be worked out for good for those who love Him. . . so the ‘when’ doesn’t matter. Even so, our confidence must be in God, not the promised good. We often focus on our seventy or so years here on earth and don’t grasp that there is a bigger picture, the grand scheme of God’s plan. Too often as Christians, we cry and rage at the pain and suffering we face or at the evil we see, and shaking our fists at the heavens, we shout at Him, “Where are you? It isn’t fair!!”
To which C.S. Lewis responds, and I think rightly so, “We are bidden to ‘put on Christ,’ to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want.” With this in mind, I think for the Christian it boils down to what I stated earlier: trust or don’t. Because sometimes, and more often than not, the answers aren’t for us to know. I think our Father is asking us, as the storms of doubt and fear rage in us, “Do you trust Me?”
Do you? Will you?
Resources for further learning:
Defense vs Theodicy as they relate to Pain, Suffering and Evil.
The Free-will defense for The Logical Problem of Evil
Using Theodicy as justification for The Problem of Pain and Suffering
Dr. John Lennox The Loud Absence: Where is God Amidst Suffering and Evil?
Ravi Zacharias Question of a Man in Agony
William Lane Craig The Problem of Pain and Suffering
Debate John Lennox vs Michael Shermer The Nature of Evil and Suffering
3 short videos (5 to 10 minutes long) explaining the logic of the Problem of Evil:
Determinism: “The philosophical idea that every event or state of affairs, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable and necessary consequence of antecedent states of affairs.” Below are some links which provide information about that topic.