Why Does God Allow Suffering?

In light of the recent events in Newtown, CT with the tragic deaths of 20 children and 6 adults, the question of suffering and evil is forefront in our hearts and minds. Books could not hold the chronicles of all the suffering humans have experienced since the dawn of time. As Bart Ehrman, agnostic professor and author of God’s Problem, asks,

We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this?  [1]

How can you explain all the misery and suffering in the world if God is truly sovereign and in control of things? Is there an answer to why God allows suffering?

Some say that suffering is “God’s punishment for sin” or “a test of faith” or “the devil’s attack on humans and Planet Earth” or “God’s means of redemption” or “a huge mystery, and we have no right to question God why it happens.” Yet we believe the question is a valid one that deserves a response. We acknowledge that a brief discussion on this subject is inadequate, but we hope to provide at least some perspective.

First, we don’t think there is any logical explanation that somehow satisfies the profound emotional cry for a solution to the horrific problem of pain and suffering. So we admit that reason and philosophical discourse cannot fully answer the cries of the heart. But this does not mean we should not think deeply about it. All things considered, we believe the Christian worldview provides the most intellectually satisfying and emotionally fulfilling response to the problem of suffering and evil.

From the very beginning, God has given humans created in his image the power of free choice or free will.  From a human perspective there was a great risk in God’s doing this—humans might choose their own way and not his. And of course they did. That might not sound that earth-shattering on the surface, but it is.

If you accept the premise that “whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God” (  James 1:16), then you probably accept the notion that experiencing a life of joy, peace, gentleness, beauty, kindness, love, and all that is called good is dependent upon and the result of being in relationship with God and living in accordance with his ways. So then, if a finite human created to be in relationship with God chooses against that relationship, what is the alternative? A life without joy, peace, love, goodness, and so on is a life opposite of God’s—resulting in a life of pain and suffering.

Imagine that the very first family of fish was intelligent beings with eternal souls. Of course as fish they were designed to live in water with gills that breathed “good oxygen” from Lake Paradise. But what if this first fish couple chose to “live” outside their perfect home of Lake Paradise? As we know, this would be a tragic mistake. Fish are not designed to breathe the open air because that is “bad oxygen” for them. And if they do they will experience pain and suffering. But because these particular fish have eternal souls they experience the suffering of a “living death.” And what about all the offspring of these fish? The “living death” experience is passed to every new fish born outside of Lake Paradise. Is this tragedy the fault of the fish Creator? Or is the suffering caused by the first fish that chose to live contrary to their design and outside of the Paradise in relationship with their Maker?

Granted, this illustration doesn’t answer all the difficult details of why suffering happens. But perhaps it helps us to remember that an infinite Creator, who is perfect, holy, and good, created humans to enjoy life in relationship with him. God gave the first couple a very good thing—the power to choose between unselfishly loving him and believing that he knew what was best (a very good thing)…or selfishly loving themselves and believing they knew what was best (a very bad thing). What God wanted was for finite humans to trust that he (the infinite God) knew what was best for them (finite humans). He wanted them to unselfishly put him first and learn that his way of living was the way of joy, peace, and goodness. If the first couple had followed that way they would have avoided pain and suffering.

What God Is Doing About Suffering

To a degree, we may craft a theological or philosophical answer for why there is suffering and why free choice has in effect allowed it. Yet in many respects the intensity of human suffering is simply too emotionally overwhelming for reason or logic to provide a thoroughly satisfying answer. And actually, the Bible by and large doesn’t directly address the question of why there is suffering. However, from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation it does tell us what God is doing about it. He has not ignored suffering; he is redeeming the world from it.

When humans chose to reject God and his ways it did bring immeasurable pain and suffering to humanity. But it wasn’t only humanity that suffered. God did not have an impersonal response to suffering. He suffered as well, for the Bible says, “It broke his heart” (Genesis 6:6). While it is true that he is “slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love” (Psalm 103:8), he does get angry. He is angry that sin brings pain and suffering to his creation. He is angry that death has separated him from the children he created. He is angry with his archenemy, who holds the power of death.

But in his holy anger and unfailing love he has taken action. Long ago he promised Abraham that through his descendants he would provide a final solution to suffering, pain, and death. “In that day,” he promised the children of Abraham, “he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people” (Isaiah 25:7-8).

God’s solution to all suffering meant that he would take the form of a human and also suffer. Jesus would experience the full weight of human suffering—that is, hunger, betrayal, rejection, loneliness, and the torturous death of crucifixion. So in a real sense God knows what it is to suffer, and he sympathizes with us (see Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). But he did not leave it there. Jesus would rise again to reclaim fallen humans from the power of death and from the power of his ancient enemy, the devil himself. “For only as a human being could he [Jesus] die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14).

God is not about to allow Satan to destroy his creation. He has a redemption and restoration plan. “Christ was raised first;” the Bible says,

then when Christ comes back, all his people will be raised. After that the end will come, when he will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having put down all enemies of every kind. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:23-26 nlt).

The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8 nasb).

When he has conquered all things, the Son will present himself to God, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere (1 Corinthians 15:28 nlt).

God of course knew that we humans would not trust that he knew what was best for us and we would choose our own way. But if love was to be genuine it had to be of our own choosing. He was willing to allow us to choose even if it brought him great pain to redeem us back to himself.

You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice as he laments that the nation of Israel, as a representative of the human race, was rejecting him and his ways: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Matthew 23:37). Isn’t it amazing how God respects and honors our choices even though he understands fully the devastating consequences they will have upon him and us? That in and of itself demonstrates how much our relational God highly honors the reality that love is a choice.

But with all that said, there is still left this nagging issue: If suffering is the natural consequence of free choice, then why do the innocent have to suffer? And why hasn’t God done something sooner to end it all? If he is going to finally conquer death, why is it taking him so long to do it? That is the subject of our next question.

This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008), as quoted in blog.beliefnet.com article “Bart Ehrman: How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith.”


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