People often ask why there is so much suffering in the world. And why do even good people suffer. It’s bad enough, they say, that suffering is a fact of life; and there are many bad people throughout history and in the world today who actually deserve to suffer. But why do good people suffer? Why do helpless children have to suffer? Why do some children die so young? Why do some die at birth or in the womb? Why are so many women on such a vast scale made to suffer emotional and physical abuse and violence, especially at the hands of men? Why do so many women have trouble conceiving a child; and many of these, when they do conceive, lose their child by miscarriage? Many individuals in their suffering pray to God for deliverance or help or relief, but he doesn’t seem to hear them; or worse, he doesn’t seem to care. And so they become discouraged and angry and they reason that if that’s what God is like, they want nothing to do with him, and abandon any kind of belief or faith in him, and make their way through life without him.
The extent of suffering in the world is so vast and all-encompassing that it permeates and affects all humanity and every human being to a greater or lesser degree; and we cannot escape it. And when we look at a particular aspect of suffering – say, kidnapping of women to be sold as sex slaves, and the living hell that must be; or that there is a massive number of people, a whole class in Indian society, who are so desperately poor that they live in the garbage dumps of India, where they’ve established a community complete with ruling class, and with those who are comparatively rich and more powerful than others in that community – it is hard to comprehend the enormity of it all; to name but two of countless other examples. In fact, suffering is part and parcel of being human; it is as inevitable as death.
And so, people ask, why does God allow it. If God is good, why does he allow suffering in the world? The only way we can understand is to look at the bible and see what it tells us – the bible is, after all, the revelation of God to man and it enables us to see life from his perspective. Only the bible can explain suffering.
Original Sin and God’s Curse
At the very beginning, when God finished his work of creation, he “saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31 RSV-CE). The prophet says of God: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab 1:13 KJV). If that is true, and it is, then God would not have pronounced the creation as it came from his hands as being good – which, when speaking of God in this way, means it was perfect; without blemish, fault, or corruption. No sin, no death, no suffering. Creation was good and beautiful, and Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, or Paradise (Gen 2:8). But within a day or two, Adam did the one thing that God told him not to do, and we lost everything. Consequently, he and his wife hid from God (Gen 3:8), and we’ve been separated from God ever since.
The whole catastrophe is recorded plainly and simply: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’” (Gen 2:16-17). But another voice was heard in the Garden; the voice of someone who shouldn’t have been there; the voice of an enemy (Matt 13:25). And that voice whispered deception, doubt and mistrust of God into the gullible and naïve ear of Eve: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).
Little did she realise, it seems, that she and her husband were already as gods, for God had delegated power, authority and responsibility to them. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’…..And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Gen 1:26, 28).
So, “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Gen 3:6). The apostle Paul states in so few words the tragic, enormous, consequences of this incident: “…as sin came into the world by one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5:12).
When Adam sinned, as the representative of the whole human race he dragged all of us down with him. Eve was in that fallen state before she conceived her first child; and Adam, who fertilised the egg in her womb, was also fallen. Therefore, that first child, and every child since then, has been born in a fallen condition; born in sin and as innate and hereditary enemies of God: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). And Paul writes that all humanity is dead in trespasses and sins, and humans are by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:1-5), slaves of sin (Rom 6:20), hostile to God and unable to please him (Rom 8:7-8).
After our first parents had sinned and brought utter disaster on the whole creation, God came to them and allowed them to give their defence. He then pronounced judgment on them in the form of a curse and sent them out of his presence (Gen 3:8-24). God was within his rights to destroy them and start over. But he didn’t. He did the very opposite, in fact. He promised a Saviour. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
In cursing the serpent, God said “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). And the rest of the Old Testament, from Abraham to John the Baptist, tells of how God prepared the world for the coming of this Saviour, who was Jesus Christ, God revealed in flesh. On the cross, Jesus struck the head of Satan, defeating him by dying as a true human being, making atonement for humanity, and in his resurrection and ascension, for “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19).
Suffering is a Consequence of The Fall
So we see that suffering in the world is the result of humanity’s fall from innocence and perfection, and their separation from God. Suffering is one of the consequences of sin. Humanity is under God’s curse. The whole creation suffers from this curse and is in bondage to it. Humanity has no right to complain to God for any reason, even the immense amount of senseless pain and suffering in the world. Death was not part of creation and is alien to it. Death is the penalty for sin (Ezek 18:4, 20). We have offended the holy and righteous God, the creator of the universe, and our creator. The evidence of the truth of this is that all die, even little children: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Rom 8:22-23).
Now that sin had entered the world, creation couldn’t simply be renovated; it had to be totally re-made. Sin has corrupted the world so thoroughly that anything less than its total destruction only dresses it up; it can never change the enmity to God that is now innate to the whole creation. That’s why Peter tells us that it will be destroyed (2 Pet 3:10, 13). Until the creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), we suffer here on earth due to injustice, abuse, sickness, sorrow, pain, war, famine, poverty, persecution, and so on. It is the consequence of Adam’s disobedience, and there is no escape. Death follows life, and on the way we suffer, some more than others. “Life’s a bitch; and then you die”, as someone cynically observed.
But we don’t give up on God because in him we have hope. He gave us hope from the very start, as soon as our first parents sinned; he gave us hope when Jesus died for sinners; and he gives us hope as we look forward to the return of Jesus Christ, when he will return to put all things right, banishing death, sickness, suffering, sorrow, and every other ill that came as the result of Adam’s sin. We have every reason to hope and not give up.
The Prince of the Power of the Air
But not only is humanity living in rebellion to God, there is also a spirit at work in the world, Satan, always and at every opportunity resisting God and trying to thwart everything he does. Peter describes him as “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Paul describes him as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). And Jesus says of him, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). As God’s enemy, and ours, he is filled with malice and evil intent; it is he who instigates and propagates evil and suffering in the world. One only need look at Job chapters 1 and 2 to see his power and his activity described, and their devastating effects in people’s lives; but those same chapters show how Job, the victim of his malicious attacks clung to his faith in God, even though he faltered, and in the end, was vindicated (Mk 13:13). Again, these chapters show how God is in control even over suffering. He allows Satan to go so far and no further because he has a plan, not only for Job, but for all generations who follow him. The name and person of Job are synonymous with suffering, and he has been a source of comfort and strength to multitudes for thousands of years. For example, James, the brother of Jesus, presents Job as an example of patience in suffering (Jas 5:10-11).
If God is not doing anything about suffering; if all this demonstrates a God who is not worthy of trust and worship; then what is? What more could he do? He didn’t have to do anything – it was and is, after all, humanity which rebelled against their Creator. God was under no obligation to humanity whatsoever. No – to accuse God of being unwilling or unable to do anything about suffering is rank ingratitude and wilful disobedience; to reject God because “There is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control” (Ehrman, 2010, p. 17) is blasphemy.
We don’t have the right to say that. If God is God, then we have to accept him as he is, whether we like him or not. If God is there, he is there, and nothing can change that. So it’s no good saying we find it impossible to believe in such a God, and thus abandon him. That doesn’t change anything and is detrimental to our own selves. If we say we can’t believe in a God who allows suffering, it doesn’t change the fact that we still must stand before him when we die, and give account of ourselves to him. Denying reality doesn’t change reality. Denying the existence of God doesn’t stop him from being. He is and he is there, and if a person doesn’t accept this, they’re in for a very costly shock, and will have all of eternity to contemplate their stupidity.
God Uses Suffering to Bring Good out of Bad
God, as creator and ruler of the universe, tells us, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things” (Isa 45:7); and “Does evil befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (Amos 3:6). But while he brings judgment on sinners and workers of evil, it does not follow that he brings only good on the righteous or the innocent. This does not make God capricious or evil himself. He has a plan for the universe and for everything in it. He assures his people that “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). But this often entails suffering for them. He says “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives….that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:5-6, 9-10).
God does not and cannot bring suffering unnecessarily, because this is against his nature. Satan caused Eve to doubt God’s kindness and good intentions by suggesting that he was withholding something good from her, and that she would be missing out on it if she followed God’s command. It was Satan’s lie to Eve and it is Satan’s lie to us today – God is mean and vindictive and he doesn’t deserve our service and worship.
God uses suffering to accomplish his good purposes. It is a sad fact that people won’t turn to God until there is no other option, and the history of Israel demonstrates this repeatedly; one could open the Old Testament almost at random and find God sending affliction on his people to bring them back from their persistence in sinful practices, which practices caused great damage to them, such as child sacrifice, gross immorality, the weak and the vulnerable taken advantage of by prince and priest, and apostasy. Despite the afflictions God sent them they refused to turn, until there was no other way to bring them back but to destroy their city and send them into captivity, thus separating them from all those things that would support them in their wickedness.
So the people of Judah were taken to Babylon, wicked and innocent alike, because of the sin of the nation as a whole. They thought it was calamity, and it was. But God meant it for their good and warned them not to resist, because he was going to preserve them (Mic 4:10). They thought that going to Babylon was the worst thing that could happen to them, but in fact it was the best. God was removing them from their security and all the things that distracted them and drew them away from him; it was an act of judgment but it was not a final casting away. These were his people and he wanted the best for them, despite their sin and horrific crimes. The destruction of their city and their removal to Babylon was meant to purify them.
And the prophet Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel that God had sent judgment after judgment after judgment upon them – famine, drought, pests and diseases on their crops, disease on the people, and war – and after he enunciates each of these judgments, he accuses them: “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6-12). God wasn’t just inflicting suffering on them because he is a bully and he could; the suffering was so that they would realise the seriousness of what they were doing, and return to God in repentance and faith. But they refused. And so God pronounced those dread words: “prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).
In the same manner, God sought reconciliation even with the nations who were not his people: “I have cut off nations; their battlements are in ruins; I have laid waste their streets so that none walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without a man, without an inhabitant. I said, ‘Surely she will fear me, she will accept correction; she will not lose sight of all that I have enjoined upon her’. But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt” (Zeph 3:6-7).
From Suffering to Glory
The Christian who reads his bible understands that this is all a matter of comparison. The apostle Paul explains, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). We persevere because we know that this earth is not all there is. Our rest is not in this world or this life or this age because they are all passing away. We are not citizens of this world but of heaven; we are just passing through here and our destination is still ahead of us. There are trials all the way there (Acts 14:22), and there are many who want to stop us from reaching our destination. But, like the people of faith of old times, we press on: “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb 11:13-16).
“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, by Bart Ehrman, publ., HarperCollins Publishers, NY
Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America