The Beliefnet web-site has a very interesting “blogalogue” between Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright on the issue of suffering. Both are respected biblical scholars but Ehrman is a former evangelical who has left the faith and has become an agnostic while Wright is an evangelical Anglican bishop. Their conversation is quite stimulating. Ehrman makes some passionate statements about the difficulty of believing in a loving God in a world with so much suffering, challenges that as Christians we need to hear. I also think that Wright gives a good response (although at times he gets a bit technical and gets sidetracked on academic issues), and that is final post is particularly helpful. You can find the entire blogalogue here.
I am not on the same level as Ehrman or Wright, but as a Christian who has experienced his share of suffering, I would like to put my two cents in. I think that Wright is correct that the Bible does not seek to explain why there is suffering but to explain what God is doing about it. I would add that it also tells us what we should do about it. This is key. Let us separate suffering of human origin from ‘natural’ disasters for a moment. Ehrman speaks of the horrors of the holocaust, the AIDS crisis and others. How could God allow these tragedies? But did God instigate the holocaust? Did God force Hitler to gather up the Jews (and others), put them in concentration camps and exterminate them? Did God command the other nations to allow Hitler to continue in his plans for so long before finally taking a stand? What about the AIDS epidemic, especially in Africa? Does God force people to be promiscuous (I know that AIDS is passed in other ways, but much of it is passed by sexual relations)? Does God want the pharmaceutical companies to hold off in supplying the needed medication so that they can make a better profit elsewhere? Why does God allow this suffering? WHY DO WE ALLOW THIS SUFFERING? God has given us everything we need to make a paradise on earth. It is the human race that chooses to use its resources for selfishness and greed rather than helping others. Let us put blame where blame is due.
This does not explain everything (such as natural disasters). So why does God allow suffering? I am not sure that we will ever know the answer, but that does not negate the existence of a loving God. Let me explain. We have two autistic children. We had to take our daughter to the hospital to get some blood tests. She went happy enough. But then we laid her on the bed. Next thing she knows, she is being held down by five people. One nurse puts a needle in her arm. Because they could not find a vein, they had to try numerous places and both arms. They would put the needle in and move it around, trying to hit a vein. This went on between a half hour and forty-five minutes. My daughter screamed for the whole thing. In the midst of her cries and tears, she would look up at me, her supposed loving father who was supposed to help her and protect her. What was I doing? I was helping the nurses to hold her down so that the suffering could continue. I could not explain to my autistic daughter that the blood tests were for her own good. I could not explain how my actions fit with my love for her. But all of it was true. I do not know why two of my children were born with autism. I do not understand why the suffering that is beyond human control continues to happen in the world. But I do know that there is a Father, a loving God who is beyond my full understanding, who loves me and loves this world. My daughter has forgiven me for her suffering (although she still hates the hospital). Surely I can forgive God for the difficulties that have come my way.