APOLOGETICS – The Problem Of Suffering
Undoubtedly, the existence of suffering in our world is the most common objection to Christianity raised by skeptics and the biggest stumbling block for those genuinely seeking to understand and know God. My experience in counselling many Christians also leads me to conclude that most believers have an inadequate theodicy (theology of suffering). Of course, for those who have experienced significant suffering, it is not merely an intellectual issue, but a deeply emotional one. It is important, however, that we consider this issue rationally and logically if we are to arrive at a theodicy that is intellectually robust and theologically sound.
Given that significant suffering exists in our world, there are only 4 possible logical explanations in relation to the existence of God:
God does not exist
God is not omnipotent (all-powerful)
God is omnipotent but uncaring
God has a purpose in allowing suffering
POSSIBILITY 1: GOD DOES NOT EXIST
There are those who argue that the existence of suffering in our world negates the possibility of God’s existence; that the two are somehow mutually contradictory. However, an important question needs to be asked: Why is it logically incompatible for God and suffering to co-exist? There is no explicit contradiction between the two. The skeptic who adopts this argument must be assuming some sort of implicit contradiction. Very commonly someone will argue that a loving, all-powerful God could not possibly have a purpose in allowing suffering to exist. This objection is both naive and arrogant, because it assumes that we, mere humans, could understand the infinite mind of an all-powerful creator God. It supposes that we have considered all possible reasons for God allowing suffering to exist and have concluded that there are no valid reasons. Yet God, by definition, if he exists, is the creator of a seemingly infinite universe – a universe so vast and complex that we can still only dimly perceive its complexities and its extent. A God who is capable of creating such a universe must have an intellect and power infinitely greater than our own. To suggest that God does not exist, simply because we mere humans cannot conceptualise a valid purpose for the existence of suffering, is naive and arrogant in the extreme. It is the same order of naivety as the ant that disbelieves in genetic engineering or space travel because it can’t understand them. As soon as we admit the possibility that an infinite God may have a purpose for suffering that we may not be capable of fully perceiving, we have effectively nullified this objection. It is simply unreasonable and illogical to argue that the presence of suffering categorically disproves the existence of God.
POSSIBILITY 2: GOD IS NOT ALL-POWERFUL
The second possibility is that God is not omnipotent (all-powerful); that he is incapable of either stopping suffering now or creating a universe without suffering in the first place. In essence, this is a variation of the first argument. It runs like this: 1. God must not able to fix suffering; 2. Therefore he isn’t all-powerful; 3. But God, by definition, is all-powerful; 4. Therefore God doesn’t exist.
What can we say about this?
Firstly, a God who is capable of creating the seemingly infinitely vast universe that we inhabit, with its mind-boggling complexity, is clearly not lacking in power!
Secondly, this argument once again assumes that God has no possible reason for allowing suffering. (This will be discussed at length towards the end of this article).
Thirdly, the argument also assumes that if God was all-powerful, he could create any universe he wanted, including one without suffering. Yet some things are impossible, even for an omnipotent God, not because they are too difficult, but because they are illogical. God can’t create a round square (at least not in two dimensions!). Nor can he create a rock too heavy for him to lift. These are logical contradictions. In the same way, creating a world where it was impossible for people to hurt others – impossible to choose to do evil – would be a world without free will. Free will cannot logically exist without choice. And moral choice cannot logically exist without the possibility of doing evil. It would be impossible for God to create a world where his creatures have free will and where there is no possibility of evil or suffering. Such a world is logically impossible. Of course, at this point we are speaking specifically of suffering caused by human choice, and it must be acknowledged that a great deal of suffering in the world appears not to be directly the result of human choice (more about this later!). Yet the point is still valid; if God’s creatures are to have free will, a world without suffering is not logically possible. When faced with the choice of either giving us free wills or creating us as robots incapable of wrong choices, the infinite, all-powerful God has obviously chosen the former.
Essential reading for anyone who is serious about defending their faith!
POSSIBILITY 3: GOD IS ALL-POWERFUL BUT UNCARING
This argument posits that if God is all-powerful and, therefore, capable of ending suffering any time he wishes, the fact that suffering still exists proves that he does not care about us. In other words, God is all-powerful but callous and aloof.
This argument assumes that the only possible explanation for God’s lack of intervention is some kind of moral flaw – a callous or apathetic nature. This is incredibly simplistic and, once again, assumes that a loving God could have no valid reason for allowing suffering. Yet even in our own lives we often see the necessity of suffering in order to bring about ultimate good. Parents who care about their children take them to the dentist to have cavities filled. Doctors who care about their patients amputate limbs to save a life. To claim that suffering can have no valid purpose, or that it is an indication of a lack of care, is contradicted by obvious examples in our everyday lives.
It is at this point that many skeptics point to the sheer volume of arbitrary, cruel and seemingly pointless suffering. They argue that, while it is theoretically possible for a God to have valid reasons for allowing it, in reality, such reasons are highly improbable. The heart of this argument is the seemingly pointless nature of most suffering. There are three important points to make in response to this:
Firstly, we can’t perceive God’s purposes, because we are limited in space, time and intelligence. We, mere humans, are extremely limited in our ability to perceive reasons and consequences on an historical or cosmic scale. William Lane Craig states, “God sees the end of history from its beginning, and providentially orders history to His ends through people’s free decisions and actions. In order to achieve His purposes God may have to allow a great deal of suffering along the way. Suffering that appears pointless within our limited framework may eventually be seen to have been justly permitted by God within His wider framework.” (W.L. Craig, “On Guard” p.158). Recent philosophical explorations of Chaos Theory, posit that the smallest of events can have far reaching, enormous repercussions globally and historically. From a Christian perspective, we can speculate that every tiny event sends a ripple effect throughout subsequent history, and God’s reason for permitting something may not emerge until centuries later.
Secondly, the argument against God’s existence based on suffering ignores the vast amount of positive evidence supporting his existence. In fact, relative to the full scope of all available evidence, God’s existence is highly probable. Probabilities are always relative to background information. For example, suppose you became aware of two facts: 1. A survey of residents in a block of flats indicated that 90% are sexually active; and 2. Billy lives in that block of flats. On that basis it would be reasonable to conclude that it is probable that Billy is sexually active. But suppose you discovered additional background information: 3. Billy is a deacon in his local church; 4. Billy is the president of the “Single and Abstinent” Society; 5. Billy is engaged to a girl who is similarly committed to abstinence prior to marriage. Based on this additional background information it is now highly probable that Billy is not sexually active. The nature and amount of background information we take into account will profoundly impact our determination of probabilities.
Similarly, in regard to God’s possible existence, if the only background information we take into consideration is the amount of suffering in the world, then it is understandable that people conclude that God probably doesn’t exist. But if we take into account the full range of background information and evidence – cosmological evidence, teleological evidence, irreducible complexity, the inexplicable existence of universal morals, the miraculous life, death and resurrection of the historical Jesus, as well as the personal testimonies of millions of people who have encountered God’s life-changing presence – when all of these factors are taken into account, it is highly probable that God exists. In fact, it is the most logical conclusion by far!
Finally, regarding the question of whether God cares about us, this was answered unequivocally at the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Whatever else we might say about God, we cannot accuse him of not caring. William Temple once stated, “People say “There cannot be a God of love, because if there was, and he looked upon the world, his heart would break”. The Church points to the cross and says, “It did break”. People say, “It’s God who made the world and it’s he who should bear the load”. The Church points to the cross and says, “He did bear it”.” (William Temple, 1881-1944, Archbishop of Canterbury).
POSSIBILITY 4: GOD HAS A PURPOSE IN ALLOWING SUFFERING
In response to the skeptic who says that there is no reasonable way of reconciling suffering and the existence of God, the Christian can say, “Actually, the Bible provides a perfectly logical explanation for the existence of suffering. You may not believe in the Bible, but if you’re looking for an explanation, the Bible gives us one! Do you want to hear it?”
Genesis chapters 2 and 3 point to a deep rift that occurred between mankind and God at the beginning of creation, when we used our free will to rebel against God’s rule. Prior to this “ground zero” moment, the universe that God had created was perfect; no storms, no catastrophes, no accidents. But “the fall”, as it is commonly termed, changed everything. Through our rebellion, a deep spiritual malaise has infected not only our own human natures, but also the natural world around us. By pushing God aside, something was profoundly broken at the very center of creation. The universe itself is now sick, and it was made so by us, not by God. As Roman 8:22 states, “The whole of creation is groaning …”. God could, of course, rectify the situation any time he wishes, and he promises to do so one day, but it will necessitate ending our rebellion and bringing every human being before him in judgment. The disease cannot be cured without removing its cause! God delays doing this out of mercy, to allow more people to respond to his offer of forgiveness. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Yet the picture is not completely beak. In God’s economy, he promises that he can even use suffering for his good purposes. “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). At the same time there is the promise of God’s strength and comfort as we go through trials and difficulties. “Cast your cares upon the Lord and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22). The Bible also strongly emphasises the ongoing sovereignty of God. Despite the seeming chaos of life at times, the Bible promises that God remains firmly in control. “Our God is in the heavens; it is his will that prevails” (Psalm 115:3).“God is King over all the earth” (Psa 47:7). “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens; his kingdom rules over all” (Psa 103:19). Only eternity will reveal how much and how often God intervened in history and in our lives to stop worse things from happening!
The Bible also points out the temporary and inconsequential nature of suffering. While not diminishing the terrible nature of suffering, the Bible is very clear that, compared to the joy and perfection of eternal glory, the sufferings of this world are inconsequential. The longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this fleeting life will seem infinitesimally insignificant by comparison. As the Apostle Paul says, “We do not lose heart … For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is not seen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” ( 2 Cor 4:16-18).
Finally, the Bible promises that at the end of human history, the paradise we that lost in the Garden of Eden will be restored (Revelation 21). The earth will be remade in its original perfection and we will once again live in close communion with God in a state of perpetual bliss.
This is the Bible’s explanation for suffering. It stands in stark contrast to the atheist’s worldview. Atheism proposes that life evolved by chance. It proposes that the grim reality of suffering is completely meaningless and devoid of hope, ultimately terminating in eternal oblivion. Compared to this, the Bible provides a very clear explanation of the origin of suffering, as well as providing great hope for the future and the assurance of God’s gracious presence with us in the present, bringing meaning and purpose even in the midst of suffering. Ultimately of course, we must concede that, as mere humans, we are severely limited in our ability to fully comprehend the complexities of this issue. We must place our faith in the infinite, all-wise, all-powerful God, who says to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”(Isaiah 55:8)
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