Thursday, 27 September 2012
Why does God allow suffering?
These are some of the explanations the world offers, but Christians cannot take refuge in them. We believe in a God who is omniscient (knows everything), omnipotent (can do anything) and benevolent (he cares). Herein lies the problem.
If God knows everything, then he must know about suffering. If he can do anything, then he must be able to eradicate it - and if he cares for his creatures then surely he would want to. So, why doesn't he?
'It's obvious,' sneers the sceptic. 'He either doesn't know, is powerless to stop it or doesn't care. The God Christians believe in can't possibly exist.' Many have lost their faith through this sort of thinking. Bernard Shaw put it rather cynically:
'How are atheists produced? In probably nine cases out of ten what happens is something like this. A beloved wife, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, struck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria. The onlooker, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.'
Is there an answer? We need to start by saying that faith and suffering have always co-existed, and that while the existence of suffering has caused great men and women of faith to ask questions of God, it has not shaken their belief in his knowledge, power or love.
The Bible details the suffering of God's people throughout the centuries. David wrestles with it in the Psalms in the depths of his own defeat and despair. Job devotes forty chapters to the problem. The prophets repeatedly quiz God as to why he allows evil apparently to triumph while the godly and innocent remain not vindicated.
According to tradition, eleven of the twelve disciples met a painful and ignominious death and today there are 150,000 Christian martyrs each year. Jesus' own death on the cross was one of prolonged torture, not just physical but mental and spiritual as well.
Many have suffered and not doubted, but this still leaves us with question of why God allows it. While it is dangerous to speculate on God's reasons for each and every tragic event, we can still give general guidelines. Let's consider the problem under the four headings of Free-will, Fall, Faith and Future.
As Christians we believe that God created human beings in his own image. This involved, amongst other things, giving us free-will and responsibility. We are not robots.
However, free-will implies the possibility of making bad choices.
How much suffering in this world occurs as a direct consequence of human beings making bad choicesl? Suffering due to war and violence is an obvious example. Most famine can also be attributed indirectly to war. Refugees have food-stocks looted, supply lines destroyed and can't plant crops. They are pushed onto unproductive land and may even produce environmental change themselves through deforestation and desertification.
A stroll around any hospital ward confirms that much disease is a direct result of human choice. Many patients are there because their own (or others') actions: alcohol, tobacco, stress, diet. The AIDS epidemic is largely a consequence of sexual choice.
Why are holes appearing in the ozone layer? Why is global temperature rising? Where does acid rain come from? These phenomena are all broadly the result of human activity. Man has caused a lot of suffering.
Let's turn the question around and ask how much suffering man could have prevented? Why is it, for example, that there are 30 million people in the world who are blind according to WHO definitions? Blindness is largely preventable (trachoma, avitaminosis A), treatable (onchocerciasis) or surgically correctable (cataracts).
Why is it that three million children die each year from diseases for which immunisations are developed and available (polio, tetanus, measles, diphtheria and whooping cough), and that four million under five years die from diarrhoea when in most cases simple oral rehydration would suffice? Why do a further four million die from respiratory infections when antibiotics exist? According to the WHO, the vast majority of the 15 million childhood deaths in the world each year are unnecessary.
Even suffering from so-called 'acts of God' is made worse through human negligence. Deaths from flooding in developing countries are compounded by tree felling up-stream and the fact that the poor are made to live in dangerous low-lying areas. Earthquake fatalities are potentiated by Jerry-building or location of cities on fault-lines.
John F Kennedy put human negligence in perspective when he said in the 1960s that we had the knowledge and resources to provide food, water, clothing, health and education for every man, woman and child on the planet. All we lacked was the will. In Jesus' parable, the goats were condemned for negligence, for what they did not do (Mt 25:31-46).
If we could remove all the suffering that we humans have caused or could have prevented, there would be substantially less.
Free-will aside, as Christians we also believe that the world we see today is not the world that God originally created. In the beginning all relationships were in harmony. We now live in a changed world where relationships are broken at all levels: between God and us (Gn 3:23-24), between human beings (Gn 4:8), and between us and the planet (Gn 3:16-19). The whole creation 'has been groaning' and is in 'bondage to decay' says Paul (Rom 8: 21-22). Disease, death and even natural disaster are symptoms of this.
These changes are indirect consequences of the Fall: a rebellion against God by both human and angelic beings. (The devil and his angels are part of this rebellion too - Rev 12:7-10.) Of course Satan can only do what God allows him to. In the Bible we see him having to ask God's permission to afflict Job (Job 1:12, 2:6) or to sift Peter (Lk 22:31). However like man, he is able to exercise his free will within the bounds God grants him and so wreak much havoc.
We should not be surprised that our world is full of suffering as a result.
Through the eyes of faith, suffering can be seen to have real value.
Sometimes it can protect us from far greater disaster. The mother who plucks her child in haste from the path of an approaching car may cause a little suffering in the process. But she averts far greater tragedy. Surgeons cause injury to prevent something far worse. Our God-given sensation of pain protects us from traumatic ulceration and infection. If we need any convincing of this, we need only look at the feet of a leprosy patient whose normal sensation is gone. C S Lewis has called pain 'God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world'. Suffering can protect us, not least from the greater suffering of being alienated from God. It is not evidence of God's lack of care for us,but rather of his love and concern. This is why Paul says, 'Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons'. The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb 12:6,7). Suffering may be God's way of protecting us.
It may also have good effects. Training as doctors is not easy, but the hard work we put in now will later bring great benefit to those we help. God works for good even in the most desperate situations. If a piece of coal is put under great pressure at the right temperature, a diamond may result. On the other hand we may be left with coal-dust. People under pressure behave similarly. Suffering may produce strength of character or may cause a person to collapse. Those who have been through war, famine or prolonged imprisonment testify to this. Such experiences can make us or break us. The Bible describes these effects of suffering (Rom 5:3-5, Jas 1:2-4, 1 Pet 2:19-22). God works through suffering for our good (Rom 8:28), and uses it to strengthen us in his service. Knowing this, we can be grateful and even rejoice through it.
Finally, we need to see suffering in the context of the future. The presence of suffering reminds us that one day God is going to put everything right. Justice will finally be done. As Christians, we look forward to 'new heavens and a new earth' (Is 65:17) where there will be 'no more death or mourning or crying or pain' (Rev 21:4). We await a world where 'the wolf and lamb will feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox' (Is 65:25), where 'they will neither harm nor destroy... for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord' (Is 11:9).
It is only this perspective of how things will be in the future that makes real sense of suffering in the present. Paul, who suffered so much (see for example 2 Cor 11:22-29) could say that 'our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us' (Rom 8:18). He declared, 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him' (1 Cor 2:9). It was this same 'joy set before him' that enabled Jesus to endure the cross (Heb 12:2).
This may make us wonder why God doesn't bring in the 'new heavens and new earth' now. Aren't things bad enough?
We need to realise that God's perfect new world will only come with the destruction of the old. This will involve the annihilation of all evil. It is God's mercy which is leading him to delay (2 Pet 3:9). When the author walks back onto the stage the play will be over. When he returns to put things finally right, everything evil will be destroyed. Those who have rejected him will be banished from his kingdom forever. Just as the glory of the new world far eclipses the best of this, so the horrors of Hell, of separation from God forever, make any suffering in this world pale into insignificance.
This is why God delays, to allow us a chance to join his side before it's too late.
God understands human suffering intimately because he walked this earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus relieved suffering in others - he restored peace in nature, brought healing to the sick and mended broken relationships – but at great cost to himself. He also took the worst this world has to offer: rejection, humiliation and an ignominious and painful death. He did it for us. Through his death on the cross in our place and resurrection from the dead he made our rescue from judgement possible. It was the only way that we could be rescued from this world which is heading for destruction (2 Pet 3:10) into the perfect world that is coming. This is why we need to accept the wonderful gift of forgiveness, new life and assurance for the future which Jesus' death on the cross offers us - before it is too late. The offer is made now.
We may not understand the reason for every tragic event which happens to us or others. Much will remain a mystery. But when we understand that God has given man (and the Devil) free-will, when we recognise that we live in a fallen world. When we see suffering through the eyes of faith and in the context of the future, it does begin to make sense. The existence of suffering should not be a stumbling block to our faith. We don't have to dismiss it as fate, retribution, 'in the mind' or random molecules.
Christianity grapples with suffering and conquers it in a way that no other philosophy, religion or ideology does. Christ defeated sin and suffering through the cross.
This article is adapted from a longer one I originally wrote for the CMF Student Journal Nucleus