Why does God allow suffering in the world?
This is a common question. How should this question be answered? There are many ways to approach this question. I do not speak as someone with theological or seminary training. But I have been a Christian for over 40 years and I have always worked at understanding the Bible and have tried to have an intelligent faith. I have not always been satisfied with some of the answers from Christian writers to this question. Dealing with this from an individual point of view is a very different thing than if you are dealing with this as a philosophical question. If you are going through some sort of suffering yourself, or someone you care about is suffering in a particular way, then your question may be “Why is this particular kind of suffering happening to me?” Asking this way it has more immediacy and is a more personal issue. I have faced this question such as when I unexpectedly lost my job and was unemployed for a significant time or after deaths of family. On a personal level we normally don’t really know the why. But I do believe that searching out God’s will in those situations helps cope with it.
I hope to try and avoid some points of confusion in my response to this. Sometimes the question gets sort of reinterpreted, so that the nonchristian is thinking one thing and the Christian responds to it actually thinking of a different question. If you’re asking “Why is there suffering in the world?” this is different from asking “Why is there evil in the world?” But sometimes Christians don’t actually distinguish between these two questions. But I would say they are two different questions, but the Biblical answers to them are related.
Perhaps I should start with “Why is there evil in the world?” This is spelled out in Genesis, which I accept. Other belief systems don’t deal well with explaining the origin of evil. There are some important things to note in understanding how Christianity answers this question. God created angels and humans, humans being material creatures made in His image, angels not being fundamentally material but made to serve Him. Humans are redeemable, but angels are not, according to Scripture. God wants to relate to us as human beings, but we are born with a sinful nature that separates us from Him. So God has a plan for redemption of human beings that evil cannot stop. Humans can learn but learning is not adequate for restoring our relationship with God. God must act into His creation to redeem and restore fallen human beings and to restore the rest of the material creation. Causing evil is not the same as allowing evil. God does not cause evil as I understand Scripture, but he may allow it. If you follow through the entire story from the Bible, Satan rebels very early on and even though he does great evil, his evil does not stop God from carrying out His plan. Since evil cannot prevent or undo God’s plan from coming about, even evil can indirectly bring some glory to God. Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, but Adam and Eve were responsible for their own sin. In Genesis 3, God’s responses to Satan, and the Woman, and the Man were very personal, directed to each of them in particular. Satan did not make them sin, but he presented them with the situation that tempted them. Satan is responsible for his sin also, and God will deal with that in time. Evil presents human beings with choices to be made since God has made us as moral beings. God does not intend to turn human beings into robots that always follow a script. We make our own creative choices.
Then comes the question, “Why is there suffering in the world?” God has self-existence, so He is not like us. He had no beginning since He is outside of time and space. He existed when there was no time, space, or matter. When humans sinned, this made human beings deserve to die, to forfeit their life. As Scripture says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” But God did not just wipe out Adam and Eve as soon as they sinned, he made them live out a long life so they had to live with the consequences of sin in themselves and in the world. But He promised hope of redemption even back then to Adam and Eve (see Genesis 3:15). The sin of Adam and Eve meant that all of humanity from then forward had to live in a material creation that was corrupted by human sin. It also meant that human relationships and human thinking were corrupted. Thus, the whole array of human problems came about, selfishness, unbelief, distrust, dishonesty, violence, and on and on. Much suffering is because of human sin. I see no reason God should be considered “obligated” to “fix” things caused by us as human beings. But there is a need for hope and we do need God’s love. If the Earth were a perfect environment, would that make everything good? No.
The Earth itself was created initially as a perfect environment for humans and other life (Genesis 1:31). There were seasons but seasons would not have had such extremes of temperature as what happens today. Then as human evil worsened in the world, God judged the world in the Flood of Noah, which changed the entire planet. The original beautiful Earth was downgraded in this judgement. The changes brought about in the Noahic Flood led to harsher climates, land that could not support plants, and destructive weather phenomena. These harsh aspects of life on Earth were not the norm in the beginning, they were a price mankind paid for human evil. In a world as it was first created, with a perfect environment, human beings still became more and more evil. After the Noahic Flood, humanity started over with a man who was a righteous man who believed in God (Noah). Natural disasters are sometimes referred to by Christians as “natural evil.” But I don’t agree with describing natural disasters this way. Natural disasters are a judgment, a consequence of human evil, they are not acts of evil really.
But God is in sovereign control of natural disasters. Isaiah 45:6 ends with the statement, “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Then verse 7 continues, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” We could debate whether God does disaster directly or indirectly and what that means. But God clearly takes responsibility for disaster here in Isaiah 45. This is the kind of statement that can make theologians uncomfortable. But I have never really had a problem with this. The God of the Bible is our Creator. He can use whatever means He chooses to accomplish His ends. He does act in a way consistent with his holy character, but we often struggle to completely understand Him. Some people have a difficult time accepting that God essentially owns us and has the right to be our judge. God can decide who lives, when they live, and who dies because He is our Creator. He gave us life so he holds our life in his hands, whether we acknowledge it or not (see Daniel 5:23 and John 15:5). This does not take away human choice. This is what the Bible teaches about who God is. So, how we react to suffering is connected to our view of God and our view of ourselves. God is also not a judge who is indifferent or uncaring about our lives or the difficult things we go through. He is willing to allow some difficulties so we will seek answers from Him and possibly learn from the experience.
In a fallen world, I think suffering is something that makes us fallen human beings able to learn important lessons about life. If we had everything our own way, we wouldn’t seek God in and of ourselves. God does not take pleasure in human suffering, but He wants willing followers, not robots. Suffering is uncomfortable but it can motivate us to seek God and find answers. I started college as a very good student but after my first two years (as an agnostic), I began to have problems and eventually had to drop out of college. I became very depressed and even had some thoughts of suicide. But I started rethinking God’s existence and this led to me becoming a Christian. If I hadn’t had these emotional problems while I was not a Christian, I may not have ever sought God. Many people find this to be true. If some suffering will help someone come to a redeemed relationship with God (through faith in Christ) then God may orchestrate that suffering to bring someone back to Him.
I know this does not answer everything. There are many questions about suffering these short comments won’t answer. Sometimes parents experience the death of a child. This is a very painful thing for a parent. But God doesn’t see our lives in isolation. We each have a place in time and our lives influence others. Even the death of a child can influence others in surprising ways, in time. The suffering we go through in this life also gives occasions for us to learn to help each other. We also experience suffering sometimes from our own sin and sometimes from the sin of others. God allows all sorts of short-term suffering or even some long-term suffering to happen to all kinds of people. But our attitude toward God matters a lot in facing suffering. Suffering makes us reexamine ourselves. We are not in control, but we are God’s creatures and are responsible to Him.
This was the key in the case of Job in the Old Testament. He apparently lived about the time of Jacob or Jacob’s children (from Genesis). His case is very unusual in that Scripture clearly spells out that Satan instigated the suffering of Job. Satan is not frequently doing this in our lives, this would be very rare I think. Job was a rare individual. Satan challenged God regarding Job and God accepted the challenge. God knows us better than Satan. Job lost all his ten children and much of what he owned. Then he lost his health and his suffering was great for some unknown period of time. But when God spoke to Job God’s “lecture” in Job chapters 38 to 41 was not about all that Satan did. God did not tell Job why it all happened as it unfolded. But Job learned about how great God is and how small and limited we are as his children. Suffering can help us understand our place in the broader scheme of God’s purpose.
God will deal justly with both those who suffer and those who cause suffering. The Bible gives examples. God also identified with us in our suffering by taking human form and living life in our fallen world, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus showed that, as God, he can end suffering. But it’s mankind’s sin problem and separation from God that had to be dealt with first, not eliminating all suffering. Not only did God come down in our form, but Jesus took all evil onto himself and suffered a Roman crucifixion, to make a way of redemption for us, so we can have a relationship with God. God’s plan will undo the effects of sin and end suffering in the future for those who believe (Revelation 21:4). But He will not just ignore evil. When I say this I’m not referring only to evil in the world. God does not ignore evil in the world, or evil in each of us either. He made a way through faith in Jesus Christ, for us to return to Him. We wouldn’t want God’s justice to apply to us. We need God’s mercy and grace to apply to us. Jesus suffered so we can experience that, if we accept it.