How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? audio (4MB)
This is a series based on and heavily dependent on Timothy Keller’s Best Seller "The Reason For God" for which I’m deeply grateful. It uses much of his argument though with various additions by myself or the other preachers of the series.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does a 17 year old get hit by a train and die? Why does a 2 year-old child just stop breathing in the middle of the night? Why does a 35 year-old mother develop cancer and die, leaving a husband and 3 children behind?
Why does an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia cause a tsunami that kills a quarter of a million people?
The list is never ending isn’t it? All we can do is cry out in pain when these inexplicable things happen to us; and join with the psalmist in asking “How long O Lord?”.
But we feel the need to do more than that don’t we? We want to know how to answer those who ask how we can continue to believe in and all-powerful, all-loving God when these terrible things keep happening. How can God let them go on?
At first it sounds like there are only three possible conclusions to this dilemma. Either God is not all-powerful, or he’s not all-loving or else he doesn’t exist in the first place.
You’ll find no shortage of people who’d argue for the latter. They’d suggest that atheism is the only logical solution to the state of the world. Clearly there is no God, of the sort Christians believe in, or else he’d never allow evil to persist.
So how do we answer such an objection to the Christian faith?
Is evil in the world an evidence for or against God?
Well, as we saw last time, the first step in answering any objection to the Christian faith is to examine the presuppositions of the questioner. What’s behind the question?
When someone complains about suffering in the world what’s the difficulty they’re grappling with?
Suffering is inflicted for no good reason.
The first problem may be that too often suffering appears meaningless or unconnected with any fault on the part of the sufferer. The child who dies through a cot death dies through no fault of its own. The villager who’s drowned by a tsunami was just doing their everyday chores. So we conclude there’s no good reason for it all.
But of course the error we make at that point is to assume that we can see all the possible reasons that someone might die. We set ourselves up to be the all-seeing, all-knowing God.
I imagine you all know the story of Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, he was unjustly accused of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife. He was thrown into gaol where he was let down by his friends. But eventually he became the Prime Minister of Egypt. It’s a great story isn’t it? But do you know in that whole story God is not mentioned once until we get to the very end. And perhaps that’s fair enough because if you’d been Joseph you’d have thought that God had abandoned you long ago. But right at the end of the story, when Joseph confronts his brothers, after it’s all over, we read these words: “45:5Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” Later he tells them: “50:20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
The fact that we can’t see the reason for bad things happening doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Though, having said that, we do have to be careful not to assume that the reason for one bad thing happening will be the reason the next bad thing happens.
Suffering isn’t fair
The second objection is that too often the way things happen seems to lack all sense of fairness or justice. Evil people prosper and good people suffer. One family can have all sorts of tragic events happen while others seem to live a charmed life. And it all seems so unfair.
But is that an argument for or against God? If you’re an atheist do you have any right to expect fairness in life. Isn’t the cornerstone of evolution the survival of the fittest? So how can they complain if evil people prosper. That’s simply evolution working itself out. If some disaster happens to someone, isn’t it just a test of their suitability for life on earth. If they survive it’s to the enrichment of the human race. If they die weren’t they just less suitable specimens that nature is simply eliminating from the gene pool?
But none of us thinks like that in reality do we? We think it’s a tragedy whenever someone dies an unexpected death. And the reason we think it’s unfair is because we believe that the world was created by a good God, so bad things weren’t part of the plan.
But that conclusion leaves us with the same dilemma. How come bad things do happen in God’s world?
God’s response to evil in the world.
Let’s think about how God responds to evil in the world.
I guess the first place to start is with Gen 3 when Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s good rule and ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. What does God say? He tells them that as a result of their disobedience the good world they’ve enjoyed up until then has been ruined. The ground will bring forth weeds. It’ll be hard work tilling the soil. Childbirth will be painful yet women will desire men and men will rule over women.
In the very next chapter we see the result of the fall in the murder of brother by brother.
A few chapters on God sees the world he’s made and decides it’s become so terrible that the only solution is to destroy it and start again. That doesn’t work so he creates a people for himself to be the agents of the renewal of creation. He gives them laws that make it clear that he hates ungodliness of every sort. He sends prophets over and over again to berate his people for their sinful ways, for the way they abuse their power, for the way they ignore the weak and helpless, for the way they allow injustice to flourish.
But again all that fails. Evil men and women succeed while the righteous become fewer and fewer in number.
But is God powerless to act? No, he’s just waiting for the right time. And at the right time he sends his only son Jesus to be born as one of us, to experience all the suffering of this dying world. Jesus dies, not as a victorious martyr but as a powerless and fearful, yet obedient, servant; as a lamb led to the slaughter, silent as he experiences all the suffering that we his people should have undergone for our sins. He’s abandoned by everyone, even by God his father, as he takes our punishment upon himself.
Is there justice in this world when the seemingly innocent suffer? Yes, because Jesus has come to share our suffering. Yes, because God promises to destroy this world and replace it with a brand new one. In the world to come there will be no more suffering or crying or pain. And, most importantly, yes, because he’s come to take on himself the just punishment that all we seemingly innocent people deserve for our rejection of the authority of God our creator.
Is Suffering part of God’s response?
One of the implications of the fairness question may be that some suffering is fair. When a convicted murderer is killed by a fellow inmate in prison there are some who would suggest he was getting his just deserts. When someone drinks and drives and dies at the wheel some people might think they deserved what they got. When a smoker develops lung cancer the cancer society would probably say “I told you so.” When someone is fined for cheating on their taxes the rest of us probably think it’s about time.
You see there are some sorts of suffering that we understand are the direct result of human choices. God makes us live with the consequences of our actions. The danger comes about when we start to think we can find the reason for suffering in every situation. But it’s not always that simple. This is the message of the book of Job. His friends think they’ve got it all worked out. God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked, so Job must be wicked. The disciples in John 9 ask Jesus who sinned, the blind man standing in front of them or his parents. Their thought process is the same as Job’s friends. If someone is born blind someone must have sinned. But Jesus’ answer is similar to God’s answer to Job. It’s not that simple! No-one can understand the mind of God. Sometimes God just let’s bad things happen because he has a greater plan in mind. In Jesus case it was to show his glory to the world. In Joseph’s case it was to preserve his chosen people during a time of severe drought. In Job’s case, if Ch1 is meant to be true, it was to show that it’s possible for someone to remain faithful to God even in the midst of severe and inexplicable suffering. In other cases it may just be that that’s the way the world is, broken and in need of total renovation, a hurting world waiting for God to knock it down and rebuild it.
Do all things work together for good to them that love God?
Finally, what about the teaching of Romans 8:28 that’s often quoted by or to Christians in times of suffering: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Does that mean that when we suffer it’ll always work out for the best like it did for Joseph or Job or the blind man? That’s the implication isn’t it? But is that what’s actually being said in that passage in Romans 8? Well, no. What it’s actually saying is that our experience of suffering in this world will come to an end when God renews the creation; when he brings us into his glory in the new heaven and earth. God is going to renew the creation in the end so that all suffering and injustice and innocent death is removed. How do we know this will happen? Because Jesus has already got there. He died but he also rose again. He appeared to his disciples in a new form, able to pass through locked doors, yet able to eat with them. And he’s ascended to the right hand of the father. He’s there already, waiting to welcome us.
The promise of resurrection puts a whole new perspective on suffering in this world. It provides us with the hope, with the promise, that there we’ll enjoy an infinitely more glorious world than the one we now inhabit, a world where the glory to be experienced will so outweigh the hurts and losses of this world that they’ll seem like nothing in comparison and in fact their memory will only serve to heighten our appreciation of the joy of heaven.