There is suffering everywhere. Why does God allow so much suffering? This is known as the ‘problem of evil’ or the ‘problem of suffering’, both revolve around the same basic idea. How can God be real, and be so good, when the world if full of suffering and evil?
It’s an age old question.
This post is my humble attempt to answer that question…
Life is hard. Damn hard. The world can be such a shitty place sometimes mi’rite?
Not too long ago my baby sister asked me a question that went something like this:
“Look I get that God is really great and all but, like, if he is then why do some people who want to have a baby so badly, can get pregnant but then have a miscarriage and sometimes they have to carry their baby till the end anyway and give birth to a dead baby… but some people can just get pregnant and have a baby, then just leave it to die on the side of the road? How can people do that? Why would God let that happen?”…
Does that resonate?
Do you often feel like, even when nothing particularly terrible is happening, life is just hard? It seems like such an effort just to break even.
Most people work their whole life, doing jobs they hate, just for enough money to get the basics.
It is a very fair question to ask how God could possibly be so good.
Maybe you’re going through something right now and that’s why you’re here… to find some answers.
Now the reality is that most people, when they’re looking up to heavens and crying out to God, aren’t really looking for an in-depth philosophical analysis for why God is good and still loves them.
If you’re reading this for the same reason, because the world just hurts and you can’t understand why, then I get it.
You don’t really want someone to sit you down and give you a pep talk. I know.
But if you bear with me I think it’s important to lay the ground work.
I just want you to know that I understand, and we’ll get less philosophical towards the end… I guess I’m just hoping you’re here because you really, truly are looking for answers, and aren’t just looking for something to throw rocks at (which all need to do every now and again).
1. The problem of evil
So what my sister is really getting at is what’s called “the problem of evil and suffering”. It is far and away the most common objection to Christianity and belief in God, and is by far the most emotionally charged problem for most people too.
But it turns out that the problem of evil has a rich intellectual and philosophical history too.
There are two pathways taken, using the problem of evil and suffering, to try to argue against Gods existence. Here they are in a nutshell:
The logical argument
God is all-powerful, so He can create any world He wants.
God is perfectly good, so He would want to create a world that is perfectly good.
But the world is full of suffering.
Therefore God does not exist.
The probabilistic argument
The probabilistic argument is similar to the one above except instead of arguing that God does not exist it simply argues that Gods existence is unlikely, because there is just so much suffering and evil.
If you want to look at these two arguments in a lot more (extremely, extremely complicated) detail check them out here.
2. Suffering and evil do not disprove God’s existence
So that’s it then?
God can’t exist. Otherwise there just wouldn’t be any suffering, there’s no way He’s perfect. If He was He would stop it wouldn’t He?
First of all, is it really logically true that God and evil cannot coexist?
To understand why we need to think about what kind of world a perfectly good God would create.
If evil didn’t exist, and never could, that would mean that all human beings would be good, all the time; they would all be perfectly good like God.
In other words it would be impossible for humans to be evil (in fact it would be impossible to even think about doing evil!) Which sounds great except for one tiny thing… free will.
I think most of us agree that we all have free will, and most of us so far as I know value free will.
Who doesn’t love to have free will, honestly?
It seems true that in order for God to be perfectly good, then he would likely create mankind with free will.
As you may have guessed, it’s absolutely necessary that this includes the freedom to reject God, and to do evil, if we so wish.
Note: If God exists, He considered our very existence such a great good that it was worth it for Him to create us, even though He knew that evil and suffering would result from our free will.
We’ll talk more about free will later on.
I think that free will really is enough on its own to at least show that it possible for God and evil to coexist. God created us with free will, because a world with free will is better than one without it.
What about the probabilistic argument?
Well for starters the probabilistic argument cannot disprove Gods existence, and it doesn’t try to.
The probabilistic argument is just trying to be clever.
It’s simply saying that, because of all the evil and suffering, it’s very unlikely that God exists.
“Sure fine, whatever. I can’t disprove God, but I still don’t think he is really there I mean, look at this place… it just seems so unlikely. Its much more likely that we all just evolved.”
No I’m sorry but it’s not really. Here’s a few reasons why…
The world is also full of goodness
But if you want to argue that because of all the evil and suffering in the world, Gods existence is unlikely, then I can just as easily argue the opposite:
Because of all the kindness and generosity, not to mention the koalas, squirrels and bacon and eggs for breakfast, Gods existence is very likely.
Note: The atheist might respond by saying there are theories in evolution that explain why those good things exist… To that I say: were looking for the best explanation here. It seems plain to me that God is by far the superior explanation for the existence of good, in contrast to the theory of evolution. Especially given that many of those good qualities fly in the face of the underlying theoretical framework of evolution, which is the motivation to survive at all costs. Any attempt to account for ‘goodness’ by the theory of evolution is nothing more than a contrivance, a story, an attempt to explain something that evolution, simply would not have predicted, but it has to because it’s all around us.
Furthermore, the probabilistic argument overlooks something important about people’s complaints about suffering in general.
We are not perfect
I think we can all agree that humans aren’t perfect. Human beings simply do not have the knowledge and wisdom to make universal judgements about God’s rightness and wrongness, even when something may seem really obvious to us, it’s always based on severely limited information. It’s defined by our individual, specific, totally biased cultural beliefs and worldview.
William Lane Craig explains that because humans are finite creatures, we are simply not in a good position to estimate the probability of God’s existence, based on how much suffering there is.
Furthermore, when we complain about all the suffering in the world, and we try to argue that God would not create those things if he really existed, then what we are really saying is that we know best, and we know what a ‘good god’ would do. Which a funny thing since humans are notorious being disagreeing about a lot of the things that we think are good and bad (except for maybe some obvious things).
Another way to think about it is that there may simply be many reasons (possibly an infinite number) for why God would allow suffering, which we are simply unable to know or understand, because our understanding is very limited.
If all of that is not enough, consider that our own ideas about what suffering is, and what a world without suffering would look like are themselves often vague and inconsistent. As humans our idea of a ‘perfect existence’ is incomplete.
I think that what’s really going on is that as humans we have an understanding of things that bring about suffering and cause us pain, and we have an idea about things that we like that bring joy and happiness, but we haven’t ever really put a whole lot of thought into really defining it well. I would go a little further and suggest that if you do you’ll realise that it’s not so easy to fully and completely imagine a perfect world without suffering, and what it would look like.
So hopefully we can see from the above points that trying to argue God’s existence is ‘unlikely’, assumes that we are able to ‘calculate’ that probability somehow, when in fact, we simply can’t do that, because we don’t have enough information. We don’t know all of the possible reasons that God might allow suffering and evil. We don’t really even know what a world without suffering would look like. We do know however, that at the very least, it would probably be a world with no free will.
The problem of evil is not the only point we have to consider
Finally, suffering and evil are not the only consideration for the subject of God’s existence. The reality is there are a great many very convincing arguments and evidences demonstrating that God’s existence is almost certain. So much so that the existence of suffering, simply is not enough of an argument on its own.
There are many more reasons to believe in God, than there are to not believe.
- The incomprehensible fine tuning of the universe
- The fact that the universe had a beginning
- The historical reliability of the Bible
- The existence of life
- The stunning irreducible complexity of life
Note: Yes, all of the evidences above also have critics, and counter arguments. But it’s important to note that they are generally very strong arguments, and when taken together, provide a very solid picture that might not prove God’s existence (although I think they do), but it certainly increases the probability a great amount!
Of course there is one other point of evidence which is particularly relevant to our current discussion which is…
The elephant in the room!
Of course, we havent even talked about the great big fat elephant in the room which, in my opinion, turns out to be one of the most powerful arguments that God actually does exist…
The existence of evil and suffering (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?!)
And it get’s a whole section all to itself.
3. Actually, suffering and evil only make sense if God exists!
- There are objective moral facts.
- God provides the best explanation of the existence of objective moral facts.
- Therefore, (probably) God exists.
The moral argument for God – Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy
The quote above is a very summarised version of the argument from morality. It’s a very famous argument.
Basically, there are some things that we know are just wrong, no if’s, no but’s. Murder is wrong… always, always, always. Rape too. Lot’s of other things too.
This argument is saying that this really only makes sense if God exists. Another way of looking at it is that if there was no God, and everything was just a process of time and evolution, then who is to say that murder is really wrong?
Now the argument for morality is huge, and could take up several blog posts all by itself.
The point I want to emphasize here, is that it is the opposite of the problem of evil and suffering (more or less.)
- The problem of evil says that Gods existence is unlikely, because of all the evil and suffering.
- The argument from morality says that, actually, Gods existence is highly likely because of all the evil and suffering!
What do I mean? Well without God there is no such thing as ‘evil’ and there is no such thing as ‘good’.
If God doesn’t exist, everything is neutral (and natural).
If God doesn’t exist, everything is a product of some natural process, whether it’s purely random, or driven by evolution, it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’.
If God doesn’t exist, then we really have no reason to complain about anything. Things are simply the way things are.
Furthermore, if God does not exist, everyone certainly seems to think that good and evil exist. There’s something about the notion of good and evil, that appears ‘inbuilt’ into humanity.
So the atheist has to explain not just why humans think about good and evil, but also why we should bother to obey our impulse to be good.
If evolution is true, and God is not real, then just because we think something is good, doesn’t mean we have to do it, or act that way.
Note: OK, it sounds like I’m being pretty tough on the atheist right now. It may sound like I’m saying that atheists are bad… that’s very, very wrong. I’m not saying that at all. Actually, what I’m really trying to say is that atheists have the capacity for good, just like any Christian, and Christians can be (and often are) bad, just like everyone else! All I’m saying is that if you’re an atheist, then you can do good things (which you probably do)… you just can’t really explain why!
But if God does exists then all of those problems go away, and good and evil just make perfect sense!
Good and evil exist, because God exists and He is perfectly good. God made a good world, and put people in it with knowledge of good and evil and a conscience and free will. This is the only really good explanation for why good and evil exist, and why we know the difference, and why we care about doing good and try to do good and why it’s so good to do good and be good!
We have a deeply instinctive knowledge of the existence of good and evil because God created us in His image (or so the Bible says).
4. Justifying God’s existence in a world where evil exists
I know what you’re thinking…
“Ugh, fine. So God can still exist even though there’s all this shit around us. But how can you still say that God is so good? He could still have created a better world than this one couldn’t he?”
God could instantly cure-all suffering right now if He wanted to. Why doesn’t he?
Surely he could at least stop the natural disasters and stuff. I mean that’s no one’s fault really?
So how can we come to terms with all of that, and live with it, knowing that there is a big great God out there somewhere, and still be happy to believe in Him and put our faith in Him?
The world didn’t start this way
Well the first thing we need to understand is that God is not the author of evil.
In the book of Genesis, it explains clearly that when God created the world it was ‘very good’. This was God’s original design, and His original plan for the world.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. – Genesis 1:31
It is also not the way it’s all going to end.
He will wipe away 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
God’s existence, and the Christian gospel is the only thing that presents any real hope.
Amidst all the suffering and evil that exists in the world. God is the only one who offers any hope for those people who choose to return to Him and follow after Him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30
You see, while many people’s hearts will cry out to God in anger and frustration, they simply don’t understand that not only is God not the author of suffering and evil, He’s our only rescue.
The Bible tells us plainly when God created the world, there was no suffering and evil. It tells us also that when God’s plan and future for humanity comes to pass, suffering and evil will be permanently dealt with, for all eternity.
This is something that fills the believer in God with immense hope. There is victory in Christianity, in Jesus Christ.
God didn’t create a world with suffering in it, but He did create a world where it was possible.
Which brings us back to free will.
Free will is a very great good
If a perfectly good God exists, and He wanted to create a world without the possibility of evil and suffering, then it would have to have been a world with no free will. Humans would be prohibited from freely choosing to reject Him.
And so it goes, God created mankind to have free will, and mankind inevitably chose to reject God.
Ok this is the part where everyone hates me. This is the tough talk.
Everyone hates talking about sin. Everyone hates the idea of sin.
Worst of all, everyone hates being called a sinner.
But the Bible is totally clear that sin is at the heart of all suffering and evil and that we are all responsible.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned – Romans 5:12 (Emphasis added)
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – Romans 3:23
What is sin?
The short answer is that sin, is the free will rejection of God and the willingness and desire to rebel against Him.
This means walking away from Him. It means deciding you consider yourself more important than Him. It means breaking His perfect moral standards.
The Bible tells us plainly that all of the suffering and evil in the world is a curse, because of sin.
So you might be thinking what’s so great about free will then?
Well, for starters, everything about our personalities that can be described as good, is only good because we choose to be that way. Virtues like courage, generosity, kindness, patience and goodwill towards others are meaningless unless we have free will. Generosity is, by definition, the act of freely giving.
Think about the fact that we all have free will, but we don’t always have the strength to exert it. Why do we binge watch back to back seasons of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and West World when we know we should be studying/working/exercising/reading/showering?
Why do we ‘freely’ choose to sleep in, when we know we have work to do?
I don’t know about you but sometimes I wish my free will was a little free-er… if you know what I mean.
This shows that free will is itself a really great good! It’s good to have free will, and it would be even better if we had more of it…
Perhaps the most important point though is that we can freely choose to believe in God, to show kindness to one another and freely choose good things, in exactly the same way that we can choose to reject God, or perform evil and bring about suffering.
So I have to restate the question:
If you have to choose between a world with suffering and evil, or a world with no free will, which would you prefer?
I think if anyone reading this was really honest with themselves, they would be willing to admit just how much of the suffering in the world, is actually the result of human free will, choosing to bring about suffering, or making choices which lead to suffering.
Free will is what has allowed evil and suffering to enter the world (by our choices as humans), but it is also the source of almost all the good that is in the world too. Jesus Christ freely chose to surrender himself to be crucified on the cross, to save us all from our sin (whole other blog post, whole other day).
God allows suffering to persist, in order to help as many people as possible
The Bible says Christ will return and punish evil and make everyone better, why doesn’t He just do it now?
Well it’s possible you might not be happy with the result if He did.
I’ve already touched on sin. The book of Roman’s explains that all have sinned, and fall short of the Glory of God. Everyone alive today who has not put their faith in Jesus Christ, is perishing. This is the hard uncomfortable truth that gets Christians in trouble for being all judgmental and self-righteous. But putting all that aside for the moment let’s just consider that for all the non-Christians of the world, if Christ returned at this instant that means bad news. It’s too late.
Every day that Christ waits, it gives at least one more person a chance to read this important message: Christ died to save you from your sin. Christ rose to defeat death, and prove that He was God. If you want eternal life, you need to turn from your sin, and believe in and follow Christ!!
The Bible tells us that God has a plan. It’s not just a plan for the future, it is currently in motion. Jesus Christ has already died, to take the punishment that mankind deserves for its rebellion against God, and He rose again three days later to prove that He was God, and to demonstrate his power over death.
We now live in a time where God’s grace extends to anyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ to believe.
Every day that God continues to allow suffering, is another day and another opportunity for at least one more person to believe, and be saved, which is just about the very greatest good thing there is.
I hope this post has at least given you something to think about.
So many people in the world are upset and angry about the suffering in the world, with good reason. We should all be doing what we can to help make the world a better place, and to reduce the suffering where we can, but blaming God won’t do that.
I understand that for many people, there is simply no argument that will ever be good enough. Many people have just made up their mind, and that’s that.
But hopefully you can see now that while suffering is a terrible thing that occurs all over the world, it does not mean that God isn’t there, it doesn’t mean he’s not real, and it doesn’t mean that He doesn’t care.
God is infinitely knowledgeable, powerful and good. He is not the author of suffering and evil, but He is the author of good and He is the best explanation for good.
Suffering really, is the result of living in a world that is under a curse, a curse brought about as a punishment for sin; a curse that God has been working to rescue us from ever since.
Yes, God could do away with it all in an instant if He chose to, but just because He doesn’t, doesn’t mean He’s not there.
At the end of it all, if you’re still struggling to understand it, if it still makes you mad to the teeth and want to break something, then that’s OK too. If you’re reading this post because actually something really terrible has happened to you, or you just see how terrible the world is, and you’re still angry and frustrated, that’s OK. That makes you human.
You’re not alone. Christians believe in God, and are still heart-broken at the state of the world. They’re still upset. We don’t understand it all either.
The Bible is full of great men of God, prophets, leaders and ordinary people who cried out to God because they couldn’t understand it either.
I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me. – Job 30:20
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it; – Ecclesiastes 1:8
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? – Psalm 13:1-2
Just to name a few examples.
You may still choose to believe that God doesn’t exist, and that’s your choice, but hopefully this post has broken down at least one wall… even just partially, and that’s a great start.