This is undoubtedly one of the most common objections to the God of the Bible in the western world – Why does God allow suffering? If God is loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t God end all suffering now? Why do good things happen to “bad” people and why do bad things happen to “good” people?
It is absolutely clear that the world around us simply does not work properly. It does not matter what kind of society people live in – whether it’s a democracy or a dictatorship, liberal or conservative, a religious or non-religious government – there is no solution to the problem of suffering. We live in a world where medical technology has never been more advanced, and yet this technology is so often used for harm. Corruption is present in every sphere of society in every nation of the world. Our planet is being ravaged by an increasing number and intensity of natural disasters whether in the form of famine, storms, earthquakes, etc. heaping misery and heartbreak on millions. Even in our personal lives, we all want to do things we know are right – but why is it that, so often, we get things wrong? We make bad decisions and often do things that cause us and those around us to suffer. At the same time, we also suffer at the hands of others. Why doesn’t the world work properly – why is everything such a mess?!
Even those who appear to have comfortable lives live under the curse of death itself. We all have a death sentence hanging over us and can do nothing to reverse this. Some die quickly and suddenly but most of us slowly ebb towards our destiny with death, with no escape. The Bible never hides from the issue of suffering and helps us a great deal in beginning to understand God’s perspective on suffering and the purposes of it in our lives.
Suffering we experience and see
Suffering is endured in a number of ways and occurs for a variety of reasons. Whilst there are many different “types” of suffering, there is a great deal of overlap as it is usually a combination of factors that cause us to suffer. If you are interested in further reading on the different types of suffering, this article goes into more detail – 15 Kinds of Suffering. For the purposes of this article, we have highlighted a few obvious examples that are clearly evident in the world around us:
On the most part, suffering is usually down to the careless or selfish actions of humanity – no greater example of this is evident with suffering in the form of poverty. God has provided a world that can EASILY feed every person on the planet. There are many areas of the world where food scarcity and famine are endured by many millions – ironically, at the same time, many in the western world “suffer” with eating disorders such as obesity, where we throw away our “surplus” food in the rubbish bin! In almost every location on the planet where famine causes millions to die, the rulers and governments of those countries either deliberately or negligently prevent food being provided to those who need it in an effort to retain power, increase wealth or pursue some other selfish agenda. Whilst this is terrible, what is even worse in that those in the rich nations often turn a blind eye to this corruption to protect their own extravagant lifestyles and usually prop up these regimes in return for cheap oil or other trade deals.
In almost every single county on the planet, the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer – how can this possibly be the case in such a “civilised” world?
Terrible suffering in various forms is also experienced by people through no obvious fault of their own. Many children are born in parts of the world with a death sentence hanging over them in the form of disease, disability, poverty or other forms of severe hardship. Many others become orphaned in troubled areas as their families are caught up in war and conflict. Even in our own society, children can be born into environments or families where unimaginable abuse and exploitation are mercilessly experienced with no escape.
As adults, our lives will frequently be affected by illness, disease, accident, crime, etc. Even if we do not directly suffer these things, the fear of them will cause anxiety and distress or lead to a nihilistic approach to life. Without exception, we all experience bereavement at some point, but some seem to suffer more than their fair share. This often appears to be very random and unfair and there does not appear to be any explanation as to why some suffer more than others. People from all walks of life find themselves ensnared with addictions they cannot control which often destroys their own lives and causes immense distress to those around them. This problem is not directly linked to age, class, location, culture and seems to be a universal “disease” of humanity.
Suffice to say that personal suffering is endured by all in some form or another and the severity of this suffering seems, at times, to be the result of a big cosmic lottery. This is a symptom of a broken world that does not function as it should.
War and conflict have always been a reality of human existence but there has been an explosion of this in the last 150 years. The 20th century was the bloodiest period of world history by a long way, culminating in two world wars that claimed many millions of lives. Since then, the world has been beset by conflicts between nations or fierce civil war. Despite the formation of “peacekeeping” organisations like NATO and the UN, there is no sign of the intensity of war and conflict ceasing. Oppression and exploitation of the populations in war-torn areas go hand in hand. To be born into and live within areas of conflict causes untold misery where human life is very cheap. Where is God in the midst of this? An evil force truly seems to have a firm grip on this world.
The world around us appears to be very unstable and in a state of conflict with itself. The animal kingdom seems to exist in a state of aggression and hostility with other animals and humans.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other weather phenomena wreak havoc in many parts of the world with the frequency and intensity increasing on an almost yearly basis. Food production is under even more pressure with unusual weather patterns threatening food supply to a rapidly increasing world population. The world seems to be creaking and groaning and even those that do not live in direct danger of this cannot escape the effects of it or the fear of having to experience it at some point.
The are many other examples of suffering from natural disasters that could be used but suffice to say the world we live in is often a hostile and an uncertain place to live.
Who is to blame for suffering?
In most cases, suffering is not caused by any one factor or individual but a combination of many. The Bible indicates that human suffering is often a direct result of either the actions of humanity, the work of Satan or the permissive will of God:
If we are ever to take an honest look at the suffering we endure in our lives, it is usually directly linked to our own decisions or actions made, either unwisely or negligently. It appears that human beings are inherently selfish even though this is contrary to the views of modern psychology and secular humanism. We would argue that humans have to consciously avoid doing things that are self-centred and that selfishness is the human “default” position. We rarely have to prevent ourselves from doing too much good! Our default setting seems to be to make decisions with a selfish motive – a small child has this programming without any help from anyone else.
When filling out our tax return, who has to prevent themselves from giving extra to the taxman? Our default setting is to give less than we should – hopefully our honesty stops this. When someone does us wrong, do we have to restrain ourselves from rewarding evil with good?! Of course not – our default setting is to reward evil with more evil.
This is the story of humanity – we all find it difficult to do what we know is morally right. This causes the VAST majority of suffering in the world around us. Any action carried out with a selfish motive will almost certainly be carried out at someone else’s expense. Any bad decisions we make will almost always cause some form of suffering. Humanity just cannot get things right. There is no political system or government that can fully protect people from suffering as a result of their decisions. No family member of ours is immune from the suffering caused by our own mistakes or selfishness. We simply cannot avoid being the cause of suffering to ourselves and others around us!
The Bible makes it clear that Satan presently has dominion over the earth until the Lord Jesus returns to bring in everlasting righteousness:
Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:30-32 NIV)
As a result of this, a large proportion of suffering is on account of Satan. This can take the form of the direct action of Satan or by empowering humans to do nasty things to each other. For example, we would argue that there is a Satanic influence over any society that permits and encourages babies that are “inconvenient” or “not financially viable” to be killed through the brutality of abortion. We are starting to see the same process gaining momentum against the elderly where it will not be long before we as a society are also “playing God” with the elderly and encouraging many to “choose” death. There is no doubt that this is also due to human selfishness, but Satan also subtly moves through society to foster the attitudes and hatred that attack the sanctity of life.
For a biblical account that supports the view that Satan directly engages in humanities affairs for harm, the book of Job is a great example.
Despite there being many examples in the Bible of God permitting the suffering of characters (such as Job) it is interesting to note that God does NOT cause the suffering in this case – God permits Satan to be the perpetrator of the suffering. However, there can be no dispute that God often permits humanity to undergo suffering. God often allows us to suffer the consequences of our mistakes and bad decisions which can lead to God appearing to be very distant and detached from our lives.
The Bible also makes it clear that there are times when believers will endure suffering as a result of directly disobeying God. The example of Ananias and Sapphira is the most notable New Testament example. The prophet Jonah suffered a great deal because he refused to deliver a message of hope to the people of Nineveh. He suffered until he changes his mind – God then graciously rescued him and Jonah went about the work God had called him to. Remember, God often allows us to reap the consequences of bad decisions. If we disobey God, it is certainly possible that God will permit suffering in order to bring us back into obedience.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. (Revelation 3:19 NIV)
However, when God disciplines us, it is because he loves us and ultimately it should lead us back to Him. When Satan causes suffering, he is intending to destroy us and break our relationship with God. It is crucial to understand this difference.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Witnessing the suffering of people we consider to be “good” can be very distressing and bewildering. However, from the perspective of God, there is no such thing as a “good” person as we are all living in a state of hostility against God. The Bible consistently teaches that there are none who can point to their good works or deeds as a reason to be protected from judgment or suffering.
When Jesus was asked a question about good people inheriting the Kingdom of God, He commented:
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. (Mark 10:18 NIV)
Jesus makes another comment to the Pharisees cementing the same point that all of humanity is infected with the condition of sin:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. (John 8:34 NIV)
Every person is guilty of rebellion and Jesus explains that anyone who sins at all is essentially a slave to sin. When compared with God’s standards of holiness, every human being falls short – no-one will be able to claim to be “good” when in the presence of God. This is why God appears to be absent in this imperfect world – a perfectly pure God has to distance Himself from an impure people, otherwise, His own purity is compromised. The ONLY possible solution was for God Himself to take the form of a human being and pay the penalty for impurity on our behalf.
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:10, 23-24 NIV)
The Bible acknowledges the reality of suffering
From beginning to end the Bible never pretends the world around us is perfect. No apology is made for the way the world is and every book in Scripture without exception describes the hardship of life as a stark reality.
As mentioned above, the most acute account of suffering is in the book of Job. After approaching God, Satan was permitted to “test” the faith of Job with incredible “affliction”. Towards the end of the account, Job asks the kinds of questions that would resonate with many:
I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. I say to God: Do not declare me guilty, but tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the plans of the wicked? Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees? Are your days like those of a mortal or your years like those of a strong man, that you must search out my faults and probe after my sin– though you know that I am not guilty and that no one can rescue me from your hand? Your hands shaped me and made me. Will you now turn and destroy me? Remember that you molded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again? [Job 10:1-9 NIV]
God response to these questions is interesting. It is worth reading Job chapters 38-42 as we are presented with an awesome series of questions by God that Job cannot himself answer. God does not explain or justify suffering – God directs Job to look to Him by demonstrating His awesome creative power. In the end, Job has nothing to offer God in the way of an argument and instead repents and submits:
Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6 NIV)
This is an appropriate response. The world around us is cursed at every level and we all live with the effects of this curse. God lovingly wants us to turn to Him for salvation and redemption – suffering is one of the tools that God uses to grab our attention!
Why can’t the world be perfect?
The world WAS perfect. Part of this perfection was God’s creation of beings that had the capacity to receive love and love the Creator in return. God gave us the freedom to make our own choices – this includes choices to love or hurt others or the world around us. This freedom of choice is a perfect demonstration of God’s love – if we had been created like robots, programmed to make decisions by God, we would be incapable of love and could then accuse God of being cold and unloving. In fact, it is impossible to know what love is without also knowing hate – it is impossible to know joy without knowing suffering.
The first three chapters of the Bible detail the original cause of all suffering. The world was created perfectly by God as a paradise to be enjoyed entirely. However, it was the rebellion of humanity that fractured this perfect creation and now there is no part of the creation that is untouched by the fall.
It is now patently obvious the world around us is not perfect. Imperfection intrudes into every aspect of our existence and we all live with the clock counting down to our destiny with death. Whether we die young or old, we WILL all die! The Bible is very honest about this and explains the world is not the way it should be:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23 NIV)
Even the laws of thermodynamics dictate that systems start in an orderly fashion and entropy (disorder) continues until the system becomes chaotic and dysfunctional. We can observe this with an examination of any feature of life. For the human, this ultimately results in death. Death is the climax of sin or rebellion against God. Death is the direct result of the fall of man and is non-reversible – we will all die and then have to face our Creator to give an account of our lives. This begs the question, “Why doesn’t God put an end to all suffering now?”.
Why doesn’t God put an end to suffering now?
For many, this is the biggest question – why doesn’t God simply end the suffering now? Why doesn’t God end the war and genocide that happens on our planet? Why doesn’t God intervene against the predatory pedophile who causes such unfathomable suffering? Why not put a stop to all the lies, deceit, corruption and greed we witness every day? The answer to this is VERY simple – if God were to judge all sin on the planet at this very moment, he would also have to judge every unsaved person…no-one would be exempt. Surely it would be unfair for God to judge the acts of other people but ignore the times we have done wrong – this would be “selective” justice and is actually completely unjust. The ONLY reason God does not put an end to all suffering now is because He is gracefully allowing time for more people to discover salvation through Jesus Christ! In fact, this “delay” is a demonstration of Gods patient love.
We cannot currently see things from God’s perspective, He does have a plan and it is being acted out in line with Scripture. From our point of view, it may be an uncomfortable ride but God has told us of events that will happen and what to expect in the world around us.
But let’s make no mistake – time is running out. Suffering WILL completely end one day and the paradise we were originally created for will be established forever with Jesus Christ as the Kings of kings. It is vital you receive Jesus Christ as Saviour before this day to avoid the prospect of missing the chance of enjoying eternity in God’s presence – How to be Saved.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. (2 Peter 3:9-10 NIV)
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31 NIV)
The purpose of suffering
The Christian is NOT immune from suffering – the Bible makes it absolutely clear the follower of Christ will endure hardship. Yet, this suffering is never without a purpose. We believe God uses suffering to galvanise His Church and cause it to focus upwards and maintain a heavenly perspective in life. In a sense, suffering is a sign of a healthy relationship with God as suffering should focus us towards Him. It is very interesting to notice that in parts of the world with the greatest suffering, the Christian faith increases at a far greater rate than those parts where people live in “comfort”. Whenever the Christian faith is most brutally suppressed is often where it grows the quickest! Christianity is generally acknowledged to be on the decline in Western nations where it has been replaced by humanism, new age beliefs, materialism, etc. Many millions are coming to Christ in places like China, Africa and the Middle East where the Christian faith attracts severe persecution. God uses suffering to bring people to Him – suffering often causes people to look upwards to God and be less concerned with this life and gain a greater focus on the life to come.
Suffering should cause us to look to God and focus on life biggest questions. Only the follower of Christ can confidently hope in the perfect world to come. Suffering should also cause us to yearn for heaven and be determined to point others to salvation in Jesus.
Can suffering be explained without God?
Many would claim that the existence of suffering is the very reason they do not believe in God, so does suffering fit into a world without God? If humanity had evolved from a single cell and our thoughts/actions are just the results of chemical reactions in our brain, how can there be a moral standard from which we can judge what is good or bad? These chemical reactions are the same with both Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa – what grounds do we use to judge whose actions are better? Surely the actions of Adolf Hitler (which we would all agree were evil) are just the natural application of “survival of the fittest” in action and fit with a godless naturalistic explanation of the world around us? If the theory of evolution is true, what position is anyone else in to say Hitler’s actions were wrong? To what moral standard or to which adjudicator are we appealing?
Only a belief in God can give us an objective moral standard by which to judge suffering and this moral standard transcends any personal human standard we set. This moral standard is not possible without a Creator God.
Suffering in context with eternity
Jesus Christ never hid away from the issue of suffering – He made it clear that suffering was simply part of this imperfect world and that those who followed Him WOULD suffer. This ‘fact of life’ is acknowledged in the Bible with no explanation given as to why certain people endure more suffering than others. When asked about the apparently random suffering of those in the OT Jesus replied:
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:2-4 NIV)
In effect, Jesus is reiterating that the victims of these disasters were not guilty of any sin that was worse than anyone else. We will all face judgment and perish without faith in Christ. The emphasis of Jesus response is that each person should look at their own lives and reflect on the fact that the penalty of death awaits us all for our sin.
Jesus was unique in displaying complete power and authority over all the causes of human suffering. There are an array of accounts of Jesus healing those who were lame, blind, deaf, diseased, etc. He controls the weather and even raised people from the dead. Jesus is the only person in history who was able to demonstrate the complete power to heal any type of ailment/condition. This makes Jesus uniquely qualified to instruct us on how to escape from the bondage of sin and suffering and to be set free:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 NIV)
For the Christian, there is always hope in the midst of suffering because the believer lives with a heavenly perspective of life. We live with the comforting knowledge that once this short life is over, we inherit an eternal existence with our Creator in heaven. No other religion or belief system offers this certainty.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:18-25 NIV)
Imagine a very long white rope with a small red handle on one end of the rope. This rope is endless in length and represents our eternal existence. The small red handle of the rope is just a few inches long and represents our present earthly lives. The vast majority spend their whole lives preparing and stressing about the red section of the rope and give little or no thought to the eternal endless section of the rope. The follower of Christ has taken care of the eternal white section of the rope and is not so concerned about the red section of the rope – the suffering that it endured in our present lives seems like nothing compared the eternity the Christian will spend in heaven.
The ultimate example of suffering
The Christian faith is also unique in recognising that the greatest example of suffering in history rests in the life of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ endured every type of suffering possible including an illegitimate birth, hunger, violence, rejection, false accusation culminating in brutal death. He willingly suffered all this and MOST OF ALL Jesus endured the complete wrath of the Father on the cross despite His perfection on our account to provide a way for our relationship to God to be restored. It is impossible for us to fully understand this. The day of judgment IS coming – Jesus has paid our penalty. He volunteered Himself for unparalleled suffering because He loves each and every one of us. What an insult it would be to reject this!
The Christian faith is the ONLY faith which makes sense of the world around. The Bible openly tackles suffering and enables us to understand it from God’s perspective. It is better to suffer now in the pursuit of truth and a relationship with the Lord God our Creator than to use the issue of suffering as an excuse for rejecting Christ and then experience an eternity of suffering instead!
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6-9 NIV)