How could an all powerful & perfectly loving God exist, when this world is filled with so much suffering? Nearly everyone touched by true suffering has asked this or a very similar question. Even the most seriously dedicated Christians will at times ask through tears, Why God? This question is not new. Even as far back as the 3rd Century BC, this has been a major point of emphasis in opposition to the Christian worldview. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, articulated this problem well by stating: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?"
The idea is: since evil exists, God is either (1) weak, (2) evil himself, or (3) nonexistent. According to this understanding, God as Christians know Him, cannot be anything more than figments of our imaginations.
So... is this objection sound? In face of this question, should we stand dumbfounded and throw away our Bibles & exchange them for more "rational" beliefs? Not so fast! Through the rest of this article, I hope to share with you that: (1) Suffering is easily compatible with the existence of God, (2) There are good reasons God would choose to allow suffering, & (3) Suffering actually proves beyond any reasonable doubt that God does exist. Let's begin...
PART ONE: IS SUFFERING COMPATIBLE WITH GOD? 1. We are not simple victims of suffering This first point is essential to understanding suffering under an omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all good) God. So many people approach this topic as if suffering were strictly something we are the victims of. "Sure there are some people who cause suffering, like Hitler and Stalin, but most of us are just victims!" But is that true? Is humanity comprised of "mostly good people" unfortunate enough to have to go through unfair hard times? For example, what about the single mom who, due to no fault of her own, was assaulted and forced to raise her child alone in the slums of a third world country?
Suffering as horrific as this, is never anything but that – horrific. When looking at suffering of this intensity, we’re often very quick to blame God. Yet, how many of us have stopped to ask where these sufferings actually come from? Most of us, when talking about this issue, seem to assume that the majority of people are victims of the injustices of a few notable antagonists – antagonists that God fails to deliver us from. Yet we forget the truth is just the opposite. Yes, we are victims – for we experience suffering – but we are also the antagonists as well - every single one of us. We have all caused suffering through our sin against others and against God. Scripture tells us that even natural disasters are the direct result of the collective sin of humanity.
This behavior is actually even worse than even we naturally think! Believe it or not, as much as you and I hate things like rape and murder - they're actually unbelievably worse than we can imagine. We see them as cruel and heinous, deserving of severe punishment - like life in prison or even the death penalty. Yet, to God, the objective moral standard by which we measure all things - these sins are so much worse. To God, they are so wretched and wicked that nothing man can do can ever fully pay for these sins. Scripture tells us that these things are so bad - the only just punishment for these sins is both physical and spiritual death. This just punishment is total separation from the source of everything good and lovely - from God himself. We can get on board with this for what we consider to be "big sins" like rape and murder. But then we must also face the sobering reality of a truth much more difficult to accept:
All of our evil decisions deserve that same punishment.
In other words, what we deserve for every single one of our sins is to be stuck dead by God instantaneously and cut off from Him forever, resulting in also being cut off from goodness and happiness itself. That's how bad all of us really are. The fact of the matter is, there are no innocent victims.
This isn't to say that the evil we commit gives others the right to do evil to us, since we deserve worse - not at all! Two wrongs never make a right, and nothing, not even other evil justifies evil. But what this is to say, is that the suffering we experience on this earth (as truly horrible as it sometimes is) is nothing compared to the unimaginable suffering we would be experiencing in spiritual death.
From this, we must first recognize that it doesn't make sense to say that a good God must deliver us from evil, if He is truly good. The reason being, of course, is that we are the cause of the very same evil, ourselves.
This leads us to our next point:
2 - Everything good we have is of Grace. The word "grace" can be simply defined as "unmerited favor". The fact of the matter is, every breath we take is far more than we deserve after all the evil we commit - after all the suffering we cause.
By choosing to forego punishment, God is extremely gracious on us. The real baffling question is not, Why do bad things happen to good people? (since there are no good people), but is rather: "Why do good things happen to bad people?" (all of us). The answer is simple: God's grace.
3 - God hates suffering more than we do Believe it or not, suffering (including your suffering) is more infuriating to God than even to you or me. Scripture says that, "God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day." Ezekiel 22 is one of many examples of God's burning furry against people who cause others to suffer unjustly. In scripture, God is not described as passive and uncaring about evil. On the contrary, we see time and time again, the God of the Bible constantly expressing holy indignation against the horrors of evil.
The existence of Hell is a perfect example of this. For, why would God create Hell if evil was not significantly abhorrent to Him? Far from being passive, we see that God is extraordinarily angered about suffering.
This of course raises the obvious question: If God is so angry about it, why doesn't He do something? And that is the question we will address in the next section. But before we do, we must reinforce the truth of the first. Let's be very clear: God does not have to deliver us from our suffering to be righteous, loving, and just. Simply allowing us to exist is loving and merciful enough. Now, with that truth established, let's move on to our next section: PART TWO: WHY WOULD GOD TOLERATE SUFFERING? Now that we see that suffering is compatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God, we now can ask, Why does God tolerate suffering to begin with?
1 - God tolerates suffering in order to bring about greater good Christians believe that God is omniscient. This means that God knows every detail about the past, present, and future perfectly. God also know what would happen hypothetically. For example, God knows that if I break my leg, I will be in pain, and that pain will cause me to do... whatever. The same applies to evil. Scripture tells us that "We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Rom 8:28). This includes evil. The fact of the matter is, God only allows the evil in this world that will ultimately bring about the greatest good. Or to put it another way: evil will always backfire.
We see this theme repeated all throughout scripture. In the Old Testament, we see the account of the Patriarch Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery - their own brother! And that isn't even the worst of Joseph's experiences. After that, he was accused and convicted for a crime he never committed, was mistreated, and left to rot in jail for some of the best years of his life. But notice what he said after it all past:
"You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people." (Gen 50:20)
The New Testament example of this is even more extreme: Jesus: the only perfect man ever to exist & God in human form, was betrayed by his close friend, beaten, tortured brutally, and executed unjustly. This is the only time in all history where a bad thing happened to a good person. And yet, what was the result? The provision of salvation for all who would believe (Heb 12:2. John 3:16).
A contemporary example of this can be found in the disturbing story a man told at a Christian conference. The man explained to the speaker that he knew a women who had been violently raped and left to die. Miraculously, the woman survived, and raised the baby boy as a single mother. "That boy grew up to be a pastor and lead hundreds of lost people to the Lord," the man said, "That boy was me."
In all three cases, God did not force anyone to do the evil they did. But God did allow those specific evils for a purpose. God does not allow any evil to enter the world if it does not first meet that criteria. That evil, he always blocks from happening. God does not do this because of any obligation, He simply does it out of mercy.
This may be unsettling to some of you, if you grew up believing that God will always protect you if you trust Him. But for me, this understanding gives me more peace than the belief that God will always protect me. Why? Because when I experience pain, my natural response is not to be angry at God for breaking what I thought He promised; but instead, my response is to be grateful to Him because I know that He will never waste my pain. And my friend, He will never waste your pain, either.
2 - God tolerates suffering in order to show us how bad evil really is. The reverse end of the last point is also true. The more we see the wretchedness of evil, the more we see the contrast of a perfectly righteous and good God. This glorifies God and helps us to better appreciate the splendor of his majesty. Similarly, the existence of evil provided the need for Christ's death and resurrection on the cross, all the more glorifying God by brightly displaying his great mercy, powerful, and love.
If this appears in poor taste, know that you're not alone. I too felt this way for awhile. Yet, someone explained this "God's Glory First" mentality to me with a picture of the Solar System. "In the same way that it's in all the planets' best interests to revolve around the sun," they said, "So also it is within our best interest to revolve around God, giving Him our life's glory." So, than, it is not selfish (in the sense of it being at the expense of others) of God to prioritize His glory above everything else. Far from it, it is the most kind thing that God can do.
3 - God tolerates suffering in order to express patience, but only temporarily. Let's get one thing clear: one day, God will obliterate suffering and evil, with such fury and vengeance that only an all-powerful God could inflict (2 Thess 1:6. Ezek 25:17, Rev 21:8). This judgement is coming. God is however restraining himself from destroying every last one of us in order to give us the opportunity to repent and be saved (2 Pet 3:9). Evil is only a temporary problem that will be rectified. The question we should be asking, is what will we do with the time God has patiently given to us? Will we repent and be saved, or continue in our evil lifestyles?
4 - God tolerates suffering in order to preserve His priorities The first three reasons are sufficient enough to answer why God tolerates suffering. But the astute student may ask, "But why does God have to have evil in the world to accomplish those things?"
This is where Christian schools of thoughts vary widely. You will have many different views on this issue. Some in the more reformed tradition will suggest that God includes evil so that He can display His justice more clearly & gloriously by punishing those who reject Christ in Hell.
While it is true, that God is glorified no matter what choice we make about salvation, I would suggest that is not the primary reason God decided to include evil in his plan. I believe that it was a necessary component of God's top priorities in creation.
When deciding how He would create the universe, God had to choose what He wanted to create, and what He didn't want to create. For certain things to exist, other things could not. For example, God had to choose if He wished to create our sun in the shape of a sphere or in the shape of a pyramid. If He created one, He could not have the other. This is just logical necessity. God's understanding of these logical truths is called by theologians & Christian philosophers, "Necessary Knowledge".
When creating humanity, scripture tells us, God did something special: he created us in His own image (Gen 1:27). There is disagreement between Christians about what this means precisely, but the I would suggest that this means (in addition to other things) that God created humanity with Libertarian Free Will. This means that individuals make decisions without any sort of determining basis outside of themselves: they are free to make their own choices.
In God's infinite knowledge, I believe God knew that if created humanity with this free will, man would choose to do evil, no matter how differently God might have created the universe. If He would have created the universe without gravity, people would still choose to do evil. If He created the universe without the color blue, or oak trees, or cats, or whatever - in any case, people would still freely choose to do evil at some point in their lives.
And so, knowing this, God simply had a choice to make: create a universe without evil or create a universe where people have free will. He could have chosen either and been perfectly just to do so. He simply chose the latter, because that was a greater priority for Him, in a similar way that it was a greater priority for him to create a spherical sun instead of a triangular one. (For more information on this concept, see my article on God's Middle Knowledge.)
PART THREE: SUFFERING AS PROOF OF GOD'S EXISTENCE Now that we've looked at why God allows suffering, next, we're going to turn the question around to ask the non-theist how evil can exist without the existence of God. Here is the argument:
1. Evil exists 2. If evil exists, good exists. 3. If good & evil exist, there must be an objective moral law by which to judge the difference between good and evil. 4. If an objective moral law exists, then a transcendent, authoritative, & personal lawgiver must exist (see full here). 5. Only God qualifies as a transcendent, authoritative, and personal lawgiver. 6. Therefore, God exists.
As you can see, this is a fairly simple argument for the existence of God, imbedded in the very objection most posed against Christianity. The truth of the matter is, "God exists, and He rewards those who seek Him" (Heb 11:6).
CONCLUSION You may be reading this for any number of reasons. Maybe you have very personal struggles going on in your life right now. Maybe you've lost a loved one, or see all the suffering around you and can't help but ask, "What's the point?" Maybe someone else asked you this question and you're looking for an answer. Or, maybe you were just looking to sharpen your skills in apologetics. Regardless of why, my hope is that this article not only informed you, but also encouraged you to love God more, and be a light, shining brightly to others. Many blessings to you!