Essay: Why Does God Permit Suffering and
This essay deals with the question which
Christians and non-Christians alike ask more frequently than any other I know. I have done my best to offer an
answer, or at least clues to an answer. But I know my best is far from adequate. I URGENTLY request your comments and suggestions so that it may be improved. For the glory of God!
- There are plenty of people who want absolutely nothing
to do with God. "I don't need a religious crutch, " some say. "I think God and the Bible are a myth,"
others say. But when disaster strikes, many of them can be heard wailing, "Why did God let this happen? Why
doesn't He DO something?"
- And then there is the age old question: "If
there really is a God, why does He permit suffering and evil?"
- In considering this question, read the Bible! When God vested the human race
with dominion over the earth (Gen 1.25), everything
was in perfect running order (Gen 1.31). There was no suffering, no evil -- no flaws whatsoever. Moreover, God
instructed us to manage the earth (Gen 1.28, 2.15) and to manage ourselves (Gen 2.16-17) in such manner as to KEEP
all He gave us in the same good condition in which we received them.
God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it
was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
(Gen 1.31, NKJV)
- It is the human race who proceeded to screw everything
up (Gen chapters 3 and 6). Not God.
- It is the human race who insists on doing things
our own way without God's interference. Yet, when things go wrong, we blame God for the outcome and insist He should
undertake immediate repairs.
- Even admitting that we have no one but ourselves
to blame for the mess we have made of ourselves and the planet we live on, the fact remains that God IS bigger
and smarter than us. So the question remains -- why doesn't God simply overrule our stubborn and stupid ways, and
fix everthing? In this essay we shall seek to find the answer to that question.
We begin our quest by coining a term...
There are people who don't believe the Bible, and
who don't believe in the God whose nature and purposes are described by the Bible. I will henceforth refer to this
group of folks as "nay-sayers." I do not mean anything unkind by this term. I use it only to save words.
Suffering and Evil
A: By "suffering" we generally mean the pain and sorrow caused by sickness,
physical handicap, mental handicap, death, poverty, and so forth.
B: The word "evil" denotes two things: (1) The baser human emotions such as hatred, prejudice, greed,
jealousy, rage, and so forth. (2) The fact that evil angels are now free to roam the earth and influence the actions
C: To save words I will often use the word "suffering" as meaning BOTH evil and suffering.
Nay-sayers consider the following three facts to be
central to the issue of God's relationship to suffering:
- Fact 1:
In 1 John 4.8b, the Bible says, "God is love." John 3.16 asserts that God loves the world.
- Fact 2:
In Mt 19.26b, the Bible says, "With God all things are possible." Rev 19.6b attests that God is omnipotent,
which means all-powerful.
- Fact 3:
Suffering abounds on Planet Earth -- disease, famine, hatred, murder, slavery, war -- every imaginable wickedness.
A Four-point Argument
Based on the above facts, nay-sayers put forth the
following four-point argument:
- 1: A loving God (fact 1) would WANT to eliminate
- 2: An all powerful God (fact 2) would be ABLE to
- 3: But God has NOT eliminated suffering (fact 3).
- 4: Therefore, the God described by the Bible is either
loving but weak, or powerful but mean. In either case, the Bible is proven to be untrue, and the God
described therein does not exist.
Three Hidden Assumptions
The nay-sayers' four-point argument appears quite
logical until you dig into it and discover that they have made three unstated assumptions as follows:
- Hidden Assumption 1: The fact that God is all-powerful means that "God can do anything."
- Hidden Assumption 2: God presently places no limitations on the amount of suffering present in the world. He
allows suffering and evil to run rampant.
- Hidden Assumption 3: Immediate elimination of suffering and evil would produce ONLY good consequences. There
would be NO undesirable consequences if God summarily eliminated all suffering. In other words, there is no acceptable
reason why God should not IMMEDIATELY eliminate suffering.
The Fallacy of Assuming that God Can Do
Even some Christians fall prey to the misconception
that God can do anything. In fact, there is a Christian song which carries that misleading title.
God is all-powerful, yes. But omnipotence is only
one aspect of that complex and wonderful person known as God.
The following are but three examples of God's multifaceted
nature and character:
|(God said:) "For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore
sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I
am holy." (Lev 11.44a, NKJV)
And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious,
longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth..." (Ex
- Example 1:
Lv 11.44 shows that God is holy, totally separated from sin and evil.
- Example 2:
Ex 34.6 attests that God is abundant in mercy, goodness and truth.
- Example 3:
Ps 147.5 and Isa 46.10 declare that God is all-knowing. Accordingly, He has total knowledge of real and potential
Accordingly, there are many things that God CANNOT do.
He cannot lie. He cannot break His promises. He cannot act to achieve an immediate good result if such an action
would cause a greater harm in the future.
In summary, God cannot violate His own holy character. He is (you might say) FORCED to always do that which is perfect,
rather than that which is merely good and expedient.
The Fallacy of Assuming that God Places
No Limitations on Suffering and Evil
Limitations on suffering
There are two types of suffering -- physical and emotional.
- God has always placed at least three limitations
on physical suffering -- unconsciousness or coma, death, and drugs.
- At certain levels of suffering, unconsciousness ensues.
Beyond that, death ensues. In either case, there is
a definite limit which God places on physical suffering.
- All healing drugs and anesthetic drugs were first
discovered in "nature," which means God
- Anesthetics had their inception from opium poppies,
hemp, coca plants, mushrooms, and so forth.
- Antibiotics were first derived from fungii and molds.
Aspirin was discovered in the bark of a willow tree.
- The "gall" offered to Jesus on the cross
(Mt 27.34) was a stupefying vegetable drug that would have put Him in "lala land." Of course He refused
it, because He was ordained to suffer for your sins and mine.
- The presence of these anesthetic and healing drugs
in nature's plants and elements is NO coincidence or happy accident. God put them there for us.
- God also places limitations on emotional suffering.
- These limiting factors include catatonia, amnesia,
dissociative fugue, and other mental states which make a person unaware of painful reality.
- But the greatest cure that God has provided for emotional
stress is... Himself.
- No matter how dire may be the circumstances in a
person's life, faith in God brings hope and peace. Hope
and peace are the "magic bullets" for curing
any and all emotional suffering.
Limitations on evil
The fact that God places limitations on the evil workings of Satan and his demons is attested to by Job 1.12, 2.6;
Lk 22.31-32; Jude 1.6.
The Fallacy of Assuming that the Immediate
Elimination of Suffering and Evil Would Produce ONLY Good Consequences
There are at least three "cures" which would
do away with evil in the human race:
- Cure 1:
Obliterate all people who are sinful in thought or deed.
- Cure 2:
Eliminate the human ability to do evil.
- Cure 3:
Command and teach people to voluntarily abstain from doing evil.
would yield a world devoid of humankind for ALL people are sinners by nature (Rom 3.10, 3.23). As a voting member
of the human race, I feel that its elimination would be a bad consequence. What's your vote?
would yield a race of puppets, because it would mean the elimination of our ability to make moral choices. This
is perhaps an even worse consequence than that which would accrue to cure 1.
- For reasons known only to God, he decided to vest
the human race with the ability to reason and make moral choices (Deu 30.19, Isa 1.18-20).
|(God said:) "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against
you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that
both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God..." (Deu 30.19, NKJV)
- People with choices can choose to do good. They have
the equal ability to choose to do evil.
- If the ability to choose evil is eliminated, then
so-called free will becomes nothing more than a charade and illusion.
- If God nullified the human ability to freely choose,
He would at one and the same time eliminate the human ability to love.
- Unless love is freely given, it is not love at all.
It is instead the meaningless act of an animated doll which, when you press the its tummy button, says "I
- When God bestowed us with free choices, He voluntarily
placed a limitation on His own actions.
- Accordingly, God will not usually interfere with
a person's choice to do evil.
- There are those rare occasions when He DOES interfere
in human affairs -- this will be discussed in a FAQ on the will of God. Check Home Base for availability.
is the course of action that God has chosen to use at the present time.
|(God said:) "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away
the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice, reprove the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow..." (Isa 1.16-17a,NKJV)
- Namely, God commands and teaches us to voluntarily
abstain from evil (Isa 1.16-17).
- We can easily see that cure 3 is far from being a
full solution to the problem of suffering and evil.
- God DOES have a long range plan for effecting a TOTAL
cure (Rev chapters 20 through 22). We will see what that "ultimate cure" is in a separate FAQ on prophecy.
Check Home Base for availability.
In the meantime, we shall go in search of a world
where a cure for suffering is not needed, for the simple reason that suffering does not exist in that world.
In Search of a Perfect World
- Advertisements for the Hallmark Corporation urge you to use their
greeting cards whenever "You care enough to give your very best."
- Is the world we live in the best of all possible worlds? Obviously
not. It would seem that God did NOT give His very best. Or -- if this world is God's best shot -- He isn't much
good at making worlds, is He?
- If I was infinitely intelligent and all-powerful, I would create
a perfect world and populate it with people who have freedom of choice but who NEVER choose to do evil. Shazam!
I wonder why God didn't think of that?
- Whoops! As a matter of fact God DID think of that. He made that
special world which is known as Heaven!
Heaven is the perfect world we all long for.
- As described in Revelation chapters 21 and 22,
Heaven is a world where there is neither sorrow nor pain nor sickness nor death nor weeping nor famine nor poverty.
- In Heaven there are no evil people or evil angels.
- In Heaven there are no hospitals, dentists, jails,
police stations, fire stations, food stamps, or soup kitchens. Best of all, there is no Internal Revenue Service
(I had to throw that in. Sorry IRS. Please don't audit me.)
- Moreover, the people who populate Heaven have
been conformed and glorified so that they are the perfect image of Jesus Christ (Rom 8.29, 1 John 3.1-2).
- Accordingly, the people of Heaven are totally
free to make moral choices but, like Jesus, they
always CHOOSE not to sin (Heb 4.15).
Heaven is the kind of world we would expect from
an all-loving, all-powerful God. Earth ISN'T!
- So why does God permit the continued existence
of a suffering earth, populated by its far-from-perfect people?
- Why didn't God just make Heaven, populate it with
perfect people, and forego all the sin and despair of Planet Earth?
Perhaps the answer to these questions can be found
by examining the requirements a person must meet in order to qualify
for citizenship in God's Heavenly Kingdom.
Two Qualifications for Residing in God's
Kingdom of Heaven
Earth folks are far from perfect. In fact they are
born sinners (Ps 51.5; Rom 3.10-12, 3.23, 5.12).
To reside in the Kingdom of Heaven, a sinner must
meet two qualifications:
- Qualification 1: Atonement must be made for the person's
sins. This atonement was accomplished by the voluntary
sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Rom 5.11). Any person can take hold of this available atonement by believing on Christ
as his or her Savior (John 3.16, Rom 10.9-10).
|(Jesus said:) "Therefore
you shall be perfect,
just as your Father in heaven is perfect." (Mt 5.48, NKJV)
- Qualification 2: The person must be made perfect (Mt 5.48). This is a task which the person herself (or himself)
is definitely NOT able to accomplish. Not to worry! When a person receives Christ, God Himself immediately undertakes
the gradual process of conforming that person to the perfect image of Jesus Christ (Rom 8.28-29).
The Meaning of "Perfect"
In the Bible the word "perfect" means
- Gal 5.22-23 names several characteristics of spiritual
completeness. The examples given are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
self-control. In everyday language we refer to these characteristics as "virtues."
- To be made perfect, therefore, a person must be
conformed to all the virtues of Jesus's holy character. Accomplishing this goal is the work of God's Holy Spirit.
He will NOT fail!
The Holy Sculpter
How does God's Spirit go about the work of conforming
us to Jesus's character?
Rom 8.28 says, "...all things work together for good to those who love God ..." That is, God's Spirit uses
the "things" in a Christian's life in order to accomplish the "good."
Here's a four-part analogy to help us better understand
the Holy Spirit's methods:
- Part 1:
A newly-saved Christian is (we shall say) like a big ugly hunk of marble.
- Part 2:
The Holy Spirit is (we shall say) like a sculptor who intends making a beautiful statue out of that ugly hunk
- Part 3:
Jesus is the Holy Sculpter's model (Rom 8.29).
- Part 4:
The "things" in the Christian's life are the set of chisels that Holy Spirit uses to sculpt that ugly hunk of marble (Rom
8.28). With those chisels, the Holy Sculptor daily chips away everything on that ugly hunk of marble that isn't
in the likeness of His model, Jesus Christ.
The Chisels of God
We have said that the things in a Christian's life
are the chisels of God. What are those things -- those chisels?
- Mt 19.21 identifies one of those "things."
When a Christian finds it in his or her heart to SACRIFICIALLY give to the needy, the Holy Sculptor gains a chisel
for perfecting that Christian.
- Rom 5.3 identifies yet another chisel when it says,
"...tribulation worketh patience." Patience is one of the virtues of Jesus's holy character.
Therefore, patience is an aspect of the model to which the Holy Sculptor aims to conform a Christian. What is the
chisel that chips away impatience? Tribulation -- the problems and distresses in the Christian's life!
May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal
glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
(1Pet 5.10, NKJV)
Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance
the heart is made better.
(Eccl 7.3, NKJV)
- In fact, Heb 2.10 and 1 Pet 5.10 show that ALL the many trials and sufferings which befall a Christian are used by the Holy Sculptor to chisel away imperfections, daily
shaping that person closer and closer to the fullness of Jesus's holy character.
- Does this mean the Holy Sculptor CAUSES suffering,
so that He might chisel away at the Christian's imperfections? God forbid! There is suffering a-plenty in this
old world, and then some.
- God permits suffering. He attenuates suffering (1
Cor 10.13). He does NOT cause it.
The big question we set out to answer is "Why
does God permit suffering and evil?" Having laid some groundwork, we are just about ready to give it a try.
Before we begin, however, I MUST make two caveats as follows:
Caveat 1: God was asked to answer the big question, in one form or another, on several occasions
such as Jer 12.1, Ps 37, and much of the book of Job. God
never chose to answer that question.
- Apropos of nothing, consider the following --
- Suppose a cockroach was crawling across the screen of your TV
- Suppose that cockroach suddenly asked you for an explanation of
how your TV set works.
- Could you explain a TV to a cockroach in such a way that its little
cockroach brain could even begin to understand?
- Now that you have considered that bit of nonsense, read Deu 29.29,
Ps 92.5-6, Isa 55.8-9. and Rom 11.33.
- When you are done reading, I challenge you to decide -- who's
the cockroach in my dumb little story?)
Since God didn't answer the big question, what you are about to read constitutes nothing more than my carefully
considered opinion. REMEMBER: opinions are like noses. Everybody has one and they all smell!
The Beginning of an Answer to the Big Question
We begin our answer with six hypothetical events
played out on the stage of this world of sin and suffering:
- Event 1:
Mary's son Fred has suffered failure of both kidneys. Without a new kidney, Fred will die. Without hesitation,
at the risk of her own life, Mary volunteers to donate the kidney that Fred needs.
- Event 2:
Two soldiers named Hans and Dietrich are on a battlefield. Hans is wounded by deadly crossfire from enemy machine
gun nests. Without regard for his own life, Dietrich runs into the crossfire and drags Hans to safety and medical
- Event 3:
A homeless mom and her toddler child are living on the streets of a large city. They are starving, and have but
a single slice of bread for their meal. The mom gives the entire slice to her child.
- Event 4:
After a full day of work, a wealthy doctor works four hours every evening at a free medical clinic providing health
care to the poor.
- Event 5:
A Christian named Louise has lost her job. She can't pay the rent. In a week she will have no place to live. She
finds a wallet on the street, with $1,000 in it. Satan whispers in her ear, "Keep it." She returns the
wallet to its owner.
- Event 6:
A white woman, bent over from age and arthritis, gets on a city bus and hobbles down the aisle. All seats are occupied.
George, a black man who has known nothing but hatred and prejudice from whites all his life, stands and helps her
to his seat.
Tragedy and Triumph
Six events on Planet Earth. Isn't it stange that each
of them is both tragedy and triumph at one and the same time?
- How tragic it is that Fred must be so deathly ill, and that Mary
must risk her own life to save him. How triumphantly beautiful is Mary's willing acceptance of that great risk.
- War and killing are hideous afflictions of the human race. But
Dietrich's selfless courage fills us with pride that a human being can rise to such heights of glorious heroism.
- A homeless and hungry mother and child? Despicable that we humans
should permit it! But a hungry mom giving her child the last bit of food she possesses surmounts the loveliest
symphony ever written.
- People who can't afford medical care? Horrible! A tired doctor
freely giving his heart and hands -- magnificent!
- An evil Satan, seeking to decay Louise's very soul? He should
be banished to hell right now! Louise's amazing steadfastness to the Lord's wishes for her life? What a victory!
- Racial prejudice and hatred? Tragic! George's triumph over his
bitterness and resentment? Noble beyond comprehension!
Never in Heaven
The six events described above could never have taken
place in Heaven. Absolutely not!
- There is no sickness for Fred to suffer in Heaven.
- No war wherein Dietrich could risk his life for a fellow soldier.
- No homelessness or hunger whereby a mother must sacrifice her
own needs for those of her child.
- No impoverished sick people for a doctor to freely help.
- No Satan to tempt Louise, whereby she can know victory over temptation.
- No prejudice or hatred for George so nobly to overcome.
Perfect? Yes, but...
Heaven is the perfect world. There is no scarcity,
no sickness, no war, no hatred, no death, no suffering. No bad things whatsoever. But would ice cream taste as
good if you ate it three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? (Stay with me, please.)
- I mean, how could you fully appreciate the absence of sin unless
you had first lived through the horrors of the presence of sin?
- Without experiencing hatred, how could you completely relish a
world where there is only unconditional love?
- How could you realize the joy of sharing unless you had first
lived in a world with scarcity?
- If you had never experienced suffering, how could you learn the
bittersweet comfort of giving and receiving compassion?
- In the total absence of sinful, selfish people, how could you
truly appreciate the virtues of patience and longsuffering?
- If you had never been in the presence of evil, how could you truly
understand that, behind evil's beautiful mask, lurks naught but futility, despair, pain and destruction?
- How could God manifest His grace, kindness, mercy and patience
among people who were and always had been perfect, and who had always lived in a perfect world?
- Unless you had personally received and gloried in the benefits
of God's grace, kindness, mercy, and patience, how could you even begin to imagine the infinite depths of the altogether
loveliness of your King in Heaven?
Our Citizenship IS in Heaven
How wonderful Heaven will be when we get there!
For our citizenship is in heaven, from
which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ...
(Philip 3.20, NKJV)
- And Heaven's splendor will shine more brightly
because Mary and Louise and Hans and George will be there -- as will millions of other Christians who, like the
heroes of our six events, have been made perfect
- Best of all, the model and Author of our perfection
will be there, too -- our beloved Savior Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for our sins. And Jesus will forever bear the blessed scars from His own sufferings on
- Apart from the suffering of Jesus on the cross
would we -- could we -- have ever truly realized the depth of His love for us?
- Is your own personal knowledge and experience of
God's grace and love worth the suffering that God permitted our Savior to endure?
Only You Can Answer
|And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be
no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.''
Then He who sat on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new.'' And He said to me, "Write, for
these words are true and faithful.'' (Rev 21.4-5, NKJV)
I haven't really answered the big question after all, have I? That's
because I think each person must answer that question on his or her own.
When you get to Heaven, and God Himself wipes away
the tears of your earthly sorrows, what will you say to Him? Will you tell Him, "It was worth it all?"
A final verse
For I reckon that the sufferings of
this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
(Rom 8.18, KJV)
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