MORE THAN A HEARTLESS DICTATOR: HOW COULD A GOOD GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?
Two years ago, television personality and atheist Stephen Fry was interviewed on Irish television and asked what he would say if it turned out that God existed after-all. Fry did not hold back: “How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It's not right, it's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain”
The problem of suffering isn’t just an academic question for philosophers and theologians, but a deeply painful and personal subject for us all - because you, like me, have tasted the bitter realities of suffering. I belong to a church community filled with experiences of suffering: cuts and bruises, miscarriages and infertility, broken bones and broken hearts, cancers, depressions, self-harms, anxieties. Yet what amazes me is that their pain has not driven them FROM God but TO God.
Now, if you stop and think about it, you and I are insulated from suffering more than ever before today – by our advances in wealth, medicine and technology. And yet curiously we are struggling to cope with our level of suffering more than before too. Why is that? Part of the reason is we live and breathe in the air of a secular society. That worldview says all there is to life is the here and now. Suffering, then, has no purpose, it is inconvenient fact of nature that frustrates your ability to realise your own meaning and happiness in life. Yet our instinctive objections to suffering suggests there is more to life than that. One philosopher observes: “only we human beings spell P-A-I-N the way we do” (Ravi Zacharias) – it’s not just a fact of nature but it’s a moral problem. We don’t talk about the weather that way – Scotland’s rain isn’t a matter of right or wrong, good or evil. However, when we encounter evil in this world, we instinctively recognise that it is wrong. Secularism is unable to help us make sense of this experience. For example Richard Dawkins says: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins). And yet, when bad things happen to us, we don’t greet them with “pitiless indifference”.
We feel wronged; we know things shouldn’t be this way; we want justice. You see we instinctively know that we live in a moral universe with moral laws and standards. And there is no moral law apart from a law-give. Put simply by a former sceptic: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line” (C.S. Lewis). So this question far from disproving, actually requires a Good God to exist.
We only recognise this question, that suffering is out of place in this world, because a good God exists, who has inscribed on our consciences His good moral standards. The real question is why is the world like this?
There are three quick headings I want to walk you through, to understand the Christian’s answer to this question.
- A REASON FOR SUFFERING
If God is truly good, then how come this world has turned out so very bad?
The Bible records this verdict on the world that God originally created: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) – no evil, pain or death. So where does evil come from? Well just as darkness is not a thing but the absence of light– evil is not something that God created. Rather it is the corruption and distortion of something that God intended for good. We live in a good world that has gone wrong – because of USER ERROR, not MANUFACTURING FAILURE.
People often ask: But couldn’t God have created a world in it where evil could never happen. Well maybe, but you wouldn’t want to live in a world like that! Because that would be a world of robots.
You see, love always requires a choice if it is to be genuine. Love cannot be coerced. Think of it this way: at home I have a 14 month old baby. After all the sleepless nights we currently are enduring, one day I hope that little one will say: “Daddy, I love you”. However, if the child says those words because I have threatened it or forced it – then those words are meaningless. Likewise, love always requires choice, so God gave us freedom: to live for and love Him, or to reject Him and live for ourselves.
Unfortunately the human race chose the latter path. This world is not the way it’s meant to be because we are not as we were made to be.
So this is our dilemma: we are a part of the problem of evil that we demand God fixes. Let me assure you the God of the Bible is a God of justice, who cares about the wrongs and evil that have been done against you. But God also cares about the wrong things that we have done to others. Each of us in our own smaller or bigger ways, contributes to all that is morally wrong with the world. One day we will be held accountable for that and face the consequences. One survivor of the barbarity of the Russian Gulag sums up why solving the problem of pain is so difficult because it implicates all of us: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). Think of it another way: Maybe you’ve heard the story of Anne Frank or read her diary from her days hidden in the Secret Annexe in occupied Amsterdam. She reflects in her diary not just on the presence of evil patrolling the streets outside, but also on the selfishness, jealousy and unkindness that she experiences within the Annexe. Evil is not just out there, it’s in here in all of us.
So here’s our dilemma: We demand God stops and sorts out evil and injustice… but if God returns to judge and destroy evil then he must deal with us too, whose hearts are tainted with evil, like a bottle of wine that has been corked?
- A SOLUTION TO SUFFERING
The good news of Christianity is that God has not remained distant from our pain. He could have left us to die in the dark, all alone. Rather in an act of incredible love He has pursued us and come into this world to rescue us, in His Son, Jesus. Tim Keller puts it well when he says: “Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows first-hand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture and imprisonment”.
God loves us so much that He has willingly suffered, and because of His sufferings on the Cross we can be rescued from evil within us and around us. In the death of Jesus, as an innocent victim of evil – He absorbed the punishment for our sins and also in His sufferings exhausted the powers of evil. In so doing He has made it possible for us to be reconciled with God and rescued from evil in this world.
- A HOPE BEYOND SUFFERING
The good news of Christianity records the fact of history that Jesus not only died, but He rose again three days later. His resurrection assures us that there is coming a day when our greatest longings will be satisfied: good will triumph over evil, death will die, tears will cease, pain will be healed.
I love how J.R.R. Tolkien, a Christian and author of the Lord of the Rings saga expresses this. After the quest to destroy the Ring and defeat the powers of evil has been successful, Sam is reunited with his resurrected friend Gandalf and asks: “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Truly, through the death and resurrection of Jesus everything evil in this world is going to come untrue. It will be like waking up from a bad dream.
Of that day God promises: “I will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
While there are still many questions about the particulars of our suffering that we don’t yet have answers to; God wants to give us a person not a philosophy to help us. Jesus is the Answerer of the problem of pain.
On the radio last year, the Archbishop Justin Welby was interviewed about a car crash in 1983 involving his family. His daughter Joanna was only 7 months old and she died. He said: “Christian faith doesn’t hide us from the cruelties of life. Jesus himself faced every aspect of the cruelty of life that is possible… It’s just in it he is there in the middle of the mess with us”
Whatever you have been through, whatever may lie ahead of you, please don’t endure the storms of life on your own – come to find refuge in Jesus Christ.