One of the important areas of apologetics is that of the problem of suffering. I separate that from the problem of evil. I consider the problem of evil to be things like crime, war and injustice. The problem of suffering I see as more of what a person goes through personally, whether by sickness, disability or some other change of life quality. Suffering is likely connected in some way with evil, but I am thinking of more the things life throws at us that beat us down.
I’m glad that people write on this issue and there are some great books on this. But it is one thing to reflect on this on a theoretical level and it is another thing to go through the suffering yourself.
I have just returned home from almost a week in the hospital. During part of that time, it looked fairly likely that I might be dying. While I have sinse had some good test results and things are looking better, I am still not out of the woods. However, even in the grimmest time, I really did not wrestle with the problem of suffering. I asked “Why?” but I was not really seeking an answer. Even if God spoke to me in my hospital room, I’m not sure there would be any answer that would make me feel better. I was scared, not so much of dying, but of missing the experience of watching my children grow up. If an apologist came to me and tried to explain why this was happening, I would not have been open to their explanations. I was in a place of desperation where I was calling out to God. It was far more emotional than intellectual. I am thankful that the pastors that reached out to me did not try to explain the situation. They listened to my frustration and prayed for me. That is really all we can do.
What do we do with the problem of suffering? Continue to write on it, but write for the skeptics who struggling to see Christianity as having a place for suffering. But when it comes to people who are suffering, avoid the example of Job’s companions and just show compassion. The truth is you do not know why a person is a suffering or how God will respond.
Any Christian response to the terrible bomb attack at the Boston marathon must begin with compassion and not pious platitudes. We must pray for those who are injured and those who have lost loved ones. We must go beyond prayer and help out in whatever way we can. If you are in the area, donate blood or watch for other material assistance that is needed. We should hug our own families and realize that tragedy can happen at the most unexpected of times.
However, someone is bound to ask: “Why would God allow this to happen?” That is natural to ask, especially for the people directly affected. Beyond that, there will be skeptics who will push this and suggest that if a good God existed, he would not have allowed such suffering. For many people that will sound convincing. But think through what that means. I assume people are suggesting that a good God would have struck dead those responsible before the bombs were ever planted. Let us work through this.
I assume we all want good government. Imagine if the government came up with a plan that they were going to insert a microchip into every citizen’s brain. The purpose of the microchip would be to sense when we are about to commit a crime and then release lethal shock to kill us before we could carry out the crime. Would you be the first one in line to get your microchip? Would you rejoice that the government was regularly killing people in order to prevent crimes? Would you see this as the best example of good government? Likely not.
So why do we think that a good God is required to kill people before they commit crimes? Where is God in the Boston tragedy? He is there. He is working through people, Christian and non-Christian. He is bringing peace and hope and healing to a place of chaos and suffering.
Our prayers go out to the people of Boston, the runners of the marathon and the families affected by this terrible attack. Our prayers go as well to the people responsible and our hope is that they would come to a place of repentance for their horrific deed.
As a parent of elementary school aged children, the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut has really touched a nerve. This is every parents’ worst nightmare. You assume that when you send your children to school that they are safe. No one expects that an armed individual would end the life of so many children and teachers. Our prayers must be with the families of the victims and the family of the one responsible. This is truly a heartbreaking situation.
One of the first questions that is asked is: Why did this happen? That is a natural and normal question. We should be asking about the reasons behind this tragedy. Why did this young man kill his own mother and so many innocent children?
For many people, the why question goes beyond the reasons for the individual and into questions about God’s involvement or lack thereof. Why would God allow this to happen? For some this is the normal question of people who are hurting and for others this is the ‘proof’ they have been looking for that there is no God or at least no good God.
I would say for those who are hurting, this is a natural question to ask. But at the same time, we should think through what we would expect God to do. Assume for a moment that there is a God and that he should have done something. What should have God done? Should God have taken control of Adam Lanza’s mind and forced him not to act in such a way? If so, is that something that God should have done just in this case or on a daily basis? Do we want to live in a world where God controls our minds and forces us to act in a certain way? Do we want a world where we don’t have the choice to love our children or the choice to help a person in need? So if we don’t want God to control our minds and actions, what would we want? God could have sent down a lightning bolt and killed Adam Lanza before he committed one murder. But is that really what we want as well? Do we want a world where God is sending bolts from heaven, killing those who are making evil decisions? And where would the cut off be? What level of crime would deserve a divine execution? When we try and be specific, we find the natural questions of why God let this happen are difficult to answer.
I would suggest that instead of dwelling on why God let this happen, that we should be looking at how God is working right now. I do not want people to think that I am suggesting that God is powerless to intervene. However, most often God’s actions are responses to our freewill and not an override of that will. Where is God working in this situation? What good will come from this? I don’t have the answers to these questions as only time will tell. But I am confident that God is present in this situation.
The problem of evil is one of the most challenging issues, not just for Christians but for people in general. In a recent issue of the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, there was an article on the problem of evil by James Danaher. You can read the article online here.
I recently had a conversation with someone about what it means for God to be all-powerful and all-loving. Since I don’t want this to be just buried in the comments section, I thought I would bring up the main points here. First of all, I have to say that there is a difference when it is a conversation between philosophers on a theoretical level and when it is someone who has personally experienced suffering. Our instinct is that if God is both loving and powerful, he should intervene in some way. I am sympathetic with these feelings. There are times I think about how effortlessly God could heal my two autistic children. I cannot put everything into a tight little box that would totally remove the concerns of people who struggle with this. But I can offer some thoughts.
1) With regard to moral evil, we have to ask who is responsible: God or humanity? Why did God allow the holocaust? Why not ask why humanity allowed the holocaust? If we followed God’s commands, we would have a heaven on earth.
2) If God took away free will for doing evil, he would have to take away the free will to do good. If we are not free to hate, we are not free to love.
3) It is in the worst tragedies that we see humanity at its most noble. Look at history. Has society been the best when it is the most affluent and comfortable or when they band together to help those in need.
4) To define all-loving as giving us everything we want is an artificial definition. I love my children. But I sometimes seem very unfair, unjust and mean when I don’t give them what they want. Loving does not require constant intervention.
5) Why does God not intervene? How do we know he doesn’t? We have no idea how much God intervenes in this world or in our lives.
6) This life is not all there is. When a baby is born extremely sick and dies days later, it is heart breaking. We think of all the things that child should have been able to experience. But if there is a resurrection and there is an opportunity for the child to experience an eternity of activity, it should affect our understanding. This does not take away from the need to grieve. Jesus cried at Lazarus’ tomb even though he was about raise him from the dead.
7) We must see God’s power and love in the context of the cross. Why doesn’t God do something about evil and death? He did by sending Jesus to die on the cross for us. Jesus was God’s power and love compressed into the form of a human being.
If you are going through a terrible time or know someone who is, seven points are not going to make your pain disappear. But hopefully these things will help you to see that there is a bigger picture and will encourage you to not shut the door on God too quickly.
According to atheists, one of the most devastating arguments against the existence of God, especially the Christian God, is the presence of evil and suffering. But this is not just an outside criticism. Many Christians, when facing their own suffering or witnessing intense worldwide evil, wonder how a loving God could allow such a thing. More than any other area of apologetics, there is a need to address these concerns. There are other books out there that touch on this. Most are either highly academic and philosophical or extremely popular with only a surface treatment of the real issues.
Norman Geisler, in his book If God, Why Evil?, fills the gap when it comes to addressing the problem of evil. Geisler deals with all of the related issues systematically, laying out the wrong arguments and offering proper arguments that demonstrate that God’s existence and goodness are not incompatible with the present experience of suffering. Geisler’s philosophical background shines through in this book. At the same time, Geisler is not writing for professional philosophers (although they will likely get much out of it as well), and he presents his material in an easy to follow and understand style. Geisler offers not just theoretical concepts but draws from his own pastoral ministry and even intimate experiences from his personal and family life. This book should have an extremely wide audience. Everyone from the skeptic to the new Christian to the believer struggling with suffering to the Christian who is becoming cynical. Geisler offers some very concrete answers, while remaining flexible on the areas where there are no clear biblical answers. This book is highly recommended.
Some atheists believe that the problem of suffering is a devastating argument against belief in God. If there is a God, why does he allow so much suffering? Even Christians wrestle with these things.
The easiest response is with regards to human evil. God sees human freedom as valuable and the natural result is that some people will choose to do bad things. Most atheists do not try to argue against that one.
The harder response is what to do with natural suffering such as disasters and disease. Why does God allow such things? I do not want to make light of people’s suffering by giving easy answers. But I do want to look at this in perspective. Natural disasters do take place and they are horrible things. But where do most of the deaths and tragedies take place? Most often they are in the third world or in poorer areas of the western world. The reason for this is that due to poverty and corruption, third world nations are not prepared for disasters even if they are in areas prone to them. Houses are not built properly, warning systems are not in place and relief is not available. What if we put our financial, mental and time resources away from developing the next iPhone or other gadget and toward making sure that structures are in place to help nations prone to disasters and thus avoid at least the large scale of suffering?
What about diseases? Is this all God’s fault? Why are the cancer levels so high today as compared to a hundred years ago? What choices do we as a society make with regard to pollution, diet and habits that lead to this? Why do we allow AIDS to continue when if we as a society made the right choices it could be practically eliminated in a couple of generations? Why do we allow poor people, in whatever nation, go without medical care?
It is true that we wonder why God allows suffering. However, I suspect that God looks at us and wonders why we allow suffering. There is enough water, food, intelligence and financial resources to create a paradise on earth. Instead, because of our materialistic and selfish desires, there is suffering all around us. Instead of pointing our finger at God, perhaps we should point our finger at ourselves.
One of the most popular arguments against the existence of God is the problem of suffering. If there truly was something like the Judeo-Christian concept of God, one would expect that he would prevent suffering. There are responses to that challenge. But I would like to make a simple observation. Most of the people I hear who bring up the problem of suffering are well-educated, affluent men from North America or Western Europe. To them it is a devastating argument against God’s existence. But I have a question. How much suffering have they really experienced? And why is belief in God extremely strong in the third world and other places where suffering is rampant? Why is belief in God so strong in Latin America, Africa, Middle East, China and elsewhere? It seems that suffering becomes a problem for believing in God when it is observed but not when it is experienced. Something to think about.