Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering? (Explore God Week 3)
As Faith Church joins 800+ other churches in the Chicagoland area in “Explore God,” our blog will examine the seven questions we are exploring in the sermons and groups that are part of the series.
A question we must all wrestle with is whether there is a purpose in life - and if so, what it is. The existence of a god is a key component in finding purpose in this world, as if a divine being that created the world exists, then this one defines and determines the purpose to our lives and existence. A further question that we must all wrestle with is why pain and suffering exists in the world and in our lives, with this being the third question in the Explore God series.
Why We Face This Question
While people will make arguments for the existence of God (see last’s week post for discussion on these arguments), I have rarely heard people make an argument for the existence of evil, pain, and suffering in this world as unfortunately, these things are quite common in our lives. We are continually confronted by pain and suffering in this world as people face physical diseases and emotional heartbreak. When we turn on the news, we hear about various natural disasters and tragic acts of violence that harm people. History books recount the constancy of war among nations as well as oppression of various people and groups -- with oppression and injustice continuing to our modern day and communities. Our intuition tells us that these things are wrong -- this is not the way life should be. We cry at funerals and cry out in our pain. We label human events like 9/11 and the murder of an innocent person as evil; even people who don’t believe in the existence of a god or even absolute moral standards say that these things are evil.
We all deal with the existence of pain and suffering in this world, but Christians are often called upon to give an explanation for how the existence of pain and suffering can cohere with other core beliefs of Christians. Logically, there seems to be a conflict with the idea that both God and evil exist, as the Christian view of God is that He is all-powerful and all-good. If He is all-powerful, He is able to stop suffering. If He is all-good, then He should want to end suffering and pain, as He would have the same sort of feelings we have when we watch the news or see suffering but unlike us, He would be able to do something about it because He is all-powerful.
Possible Answers to the Question
It is not only Christians who must address this question of pain and suffering, as every philosophical or religious system has to give an answer to why these things happen to humans as well as how (or if) we can find any liberation or hope in the cycle of suffering. Therefore, it is good to explore some other explanations and options.
One possible answer found in religions of the world is karma, which views the suffering we face in this world as a consequence of actions that occurred in a past life. This assumes a cycle of reincarnation and would make all suffering justified, but this does not seem to satisfy our sense that some suffering seems unjust; the idea of reincarnation has its own logical problems I cannot go into in this post. Buddhism teaches that suffering is really an illusion, and we can from free ourselves from suffering when we detach ourselves from our desires. This idea is analogous to Christian Science or Hinduism, both of which view suffering as an illusion we need to get past by remembering that the universe is spiritual (evil is really faulty thinking). A secular worldview would similarly seem to say the problem of pain and suffering (not the actual pain, but rather the experience of pain being a problem) is really an illusion, tied to our perspective of what is happening -- this is just the way the world is. Other philosophers throughout history and in various places also view suffering as something that is our lot in life that people simply need to accept as our destiny. A final way that some have sought to solve the problem of pain and suffering existing alongside of an all-good and all-powerful God is to say that God is either not all-good or not all-powerful. People are more likely to deny the latter than the former, with thinkers such as Rabbi Harold Kushner (who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People) saying that God is not all-powerful and can’t stop evil. Other people have similar forms of modifying what they believe about God in response to suffering.
The Christian Answer to Pain and Suffering
Christianity offers a different view of suffering from any of these systems, and this view arises from the cross of Jesus Christ, which allows us to continue to see God as all-good and all-powerful. The cross can show us that injustice exists in this world for a time and that God is neither immune to it nor unable to act against it. An all-good and all-powerful God exists, and though evil exists for a time and season, God will put an end to it and all injustice through Jesus, who will bring justice to the world through his judgment and through his death.
The Christian faith teaches that God created a perfect world, but because of Satan’s lies, Adam and Eve made a wrong choice and sinned. As a result of this sin, humans and the world have been affected; people make wrong choices that hurt themselves, others, and the world. The world is no longer perfect as God created it, but rather, under a curse. The world is still beautiful and majestic, but it is also a dangerous place. We are able to do acts of kindness and love towards others and can do brilliant things, but we also make “bonehead” decisions that lead to acts of evil. The Christian worldview matches my experience of the world.
This suffering exists for a time, but Christ’s second coming is the promise that God will put an end to the sin and suffering. We may question why God waited so long to send Jesus, and why it seems to take so long for Him to return to make all things right. Answers to those questions are beyond our knowledge. I can’t answer all the “why” questions, but that does not bother me as it coheres with the Christian idea that I am a created, finite being and there is an infinite God who created and knows all things. Mark Twain once said that he was not bothered by the parts of the Bible he didn’t understand, but rather the parts that he did understand. I would alter this quote, as for me, it is the parts of the Bible and the Christian faith that I can understand that give me comfort and hope in the midst of a world that I will never fully understand.
The cross is something I understand, and in it, the perfect God puts Himself in the way of suffering as a way to end suffering. God does not tell us that we have to figure out how to stop and end suffering. Rather, he enters into suffering and tells us He has a plan and will take care of it. We can recognize that though suffering is real and often unjust, it will end and we have a God who is with us during those times
We Must Come to A Conclusion
I have tried to lay out how Christians explain the existence of pain and suffering in the world. It is the explanation I find most intellectually and emotionally satisfying, one that matches what I see in the world and in my own heart. I hope it helps you as you process this difficult topic, as all come to some sort of conclusion implicitly or explicitly. Our hope is that we should find the one that matches our experience of the world and connects to our other beliefs and how we live.
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