All posts by waynespencer

God and Suffering

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.

The Mysteries of Fomalhaut

At a distance of 25 Light-Years from Earth is a trinary star system that has been of much interest to scientists. There has also been a controversy regarding whether it hosts an exoplanet that has been called “Fomalhaut b.” This possible exoplanet has also been given the name of “Dagon” which was the name of one of the false gods of the Philistines in Old Testament times. In multiple star systems if a capital letter is used it refers to one of the stars but if a lower-case letter is used it refers to an exoplanet. Thus, to say “Fomalhaut B” refers to the second star but “Fomalhaut b” refers to the first exoplanet. Scientists never use a lower case “a” in reference to exoplanets. Fomalhaut A is the brightest star of the three and it has a very large dust disk around it. This disk has been imaged recently with the James Webb Space Telescope, revealing that there is much more to the disk than scientists expected. There are three separate rings in the Fomalhaut A disk, which spreads out for 150 Astronomical Units distance from the star. Fomalhaut C also has a disk, but it hasn’t generated as much interest apparently. Fomalhaut C is farther away but it orbits the center of gravity of Fomalhaut A and B. Fomalhaut A and B are just under one A.U. apart and they orbit around the common center of gravity between them. Fomalhaut B is also known as a flare star. It is variable and has very strong solar flares periodically.

The large disk around Fomalhaut A is an interesting study in what our scientific methods can and cannot tell us. In 2008 it was reported that using the Hubble Space Telescope, an object could be seen having moved in the disk between 2004 and 2006. It was believed to be an exoplanet and it was called Fomalhaut b. It was occassionally observed a few other times up to including 2012 and 2013 by various researchers. It was still considered an exoplanet at that time. In fact, in 2015 the IAU completed a contest for allowing people to submit names for exoplanets and other objects. The IAU adopted the name “Dagon” as the official name of exoplanet Fomalhaut b. However, in April 2020 a scientific paper was published arguing that the object called Fomalhaut b had disappeared and showed characteristics of it being a cloud from a collision instead of a planet. So it may have never been a real planet. The Fomalhaut A disk is enormous and probably very thick, so it could hide sizable objects. So there is currently a difference of opinion among scientists on the existence of Fomalhaut b. It can be a healthy thing for us fallible human beings to run into the limits of what we know so we have to deal with something that is uncertain or unclear. Time can clarify things, as we learn more. I do not mean to criticize scientists regarding either point of view on whether Fomalhaut b exists or not. I would lean for the moment toward the view that it was a cloud from a collision and not a planet. But we may have to wait and see what is discovered next.

The picture below diagrams the various rings found around Fomalhaut A. Such as disk is referred to as a “debri disk.” To understand the various comments from scientists on this, it is important to understand the difference between a “protoplanetary disk” and a “debri disk.” A protoplanetary disk has both gas and dust and these are not really observed, though whether there are actual examples might be considered debatable. A protoplanetary disk exists early in the process after the star has formed and planets and other asteroid-like objects may have not yet formed. The gas is believed to be key to the process of planet formation. The presence of the gas is believed to help planet migration happen and it provides gas for gaseous planets. But the gas dissipates or is absorbed by the star or the planets in less than 10 million years according to models. After the gas dissipates away then solid objects and planets may collide, generating dust. So at Fomalhaut, scientists would not expect planets to form from the disk that exists now. But they would expect there to be sizable objects there somewhere because in their view, some type of objects had to collide to generate the disk and its rings. The gaps in the rings are also thought to suggest there are objects that have “sculpted” the rings, forming the gaps. The James Webb telescope uses infrared and zeros in on three different frequencies of light which detects dust. Dust turns out to be rather bright in infrared, but macroscopic objects like asteroids or planets are dark and faint in infrared. At the present time, there is not clear evidence of either planets or asteroids in the Fomalhaut rings.

JWST Fomalhaut image
Fomalhaut A debri disk showing three belts. Source Space Telescope Science Institute.

In trying to take a biblical view of things, I would say we don’t know if God created planets at Fomalhaut or not. God could have created multiple dust rings with no planets or asteroids. The evidence at other stars with disks may be different as well. There is a tendancy in astronomy for scientists to assume a history of the system that we do not and cannot know for sure. Physics can give some insight on how a system may change over time or about the way objects interact. But physics does not necessarily tell us the initial conditions in the beginning. Computer simulations can give insight as well but there is always a limitation of a computer simulation. How can you be sure the simulation represents conditions like those in the real system? Scientists would like to see some confirmation of accepted theories of the formation of extra-solar systems. They would like to find evidence of asteroids or planets so there is an indication that collisions formed the dust rings at Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut’s third ring is about 150 A.U. in diameter; so, this would require multiple collisions of small bodies or a catastrophic collision of a large planet. The burning question raised to scientists is “where are the planets?”

Sometimes God seems to arrange events so as to go against human expectations and humble us as human beings. This brings up an account from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. It is ironic that Fomalhaut b was named “Dagon.” I don’t know who suggested this name or why it was proposed. Fomalhaut b appears to not be a real exoplanet and in the story in 1 Samuel, Dagon was shown to be a false god. So there is an ironic parallel in using the Dagon name for this exoplanet. To really get the whole story would require reading 1 Samuel chapters 2-7. But the key part for my purpose is mainly in chapter 5. In ancient Israel there was a priest named Eli who had two sons but his sons were sinful and when Israel’s leaders were corrupt things did not go well for the nation. The Israelite army attacked the Philistines and lost the battle. About 4,000 Israelite men were killed in that battle. So then the Israelites decided to go get the Ark of God (the Ark of the Covenant) and take it into battle. They treated it as if it were like a simple outward rule doing what God required, as if God did not know what they were really thinking. They thought that like in the past if they took the Ark into battle that they would win just because they had the Ark. But God taught them a costly lesson. They took the Ark into battle and the Philistines saw the Ark and were afraid because they had heard the stories of what had happened in the past when the Israelites defeated other armies while they had the Ark. But the power was never in the Ark itself, but in God himself being with them. In spite of their fear, the Philistines fought the Israelites. So in this particular situation, the Philistines, sinful and unbelieving though they were, were showing more awareness in some ways than the Israelites! So in the battle the Philistines won and the Israelites lost 30,000 men! Also, the Philistines took the Ark of God. The Philistines praised their god, Dagon, and they took the Ark of God and put it in the temple of Dagon.

The following morning the Philistines went to their temple and found that Dagon’s statue had fallen on its face in front of the Ark of God. So, the Philistines seemed to think little of it. They sat Dagon’s statue back in its place. Then the next morning when they went back to their temple, Dagon had fallen down again and this time its head and its hands were broken off. This was not a prank from the Israelites. After taking such a beating from the Philistines, no Israelite would have dared to do something like this in the Philistine temple. Then the Philistines seemed to debate for some time what to do with the Ark of God. First, they moved it out of the temple to another city called Gath. But after moving it the people of Gath broke out with tumors. So they moved it once again to the city of Ekron, and again in Ekron there was an outbreak of tumors and people were dying. Eventually, they sent it back to Israel on a cart pulled by two cows. Both the Israelites and the Philistines got lessons in taking God seriously. It is a sobering story.

I’m not saying the scientists looking for an exoplanet at Fomalhaut are like the Philistines (or like the Israelites for that matter). There is nothing wrong with searching for a planet at Fomalhaut. In science there may be different opinions from scientists as research continues. But there is something to say for having a bit of humility and realizing we don’t know everything. The Old Testament contains accounts of many amazing miracles God did in the past. The Old Testament also mentions known people groups, and places and events confirmed by historical evidence. But whether scientists theories are right or wrong, God ultimately gets the last word.