Why Suffer?Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?
Some scholars have argued that Job is the oldest book in the Bible. I would not be surprised because it confronts one of the hardest questions that we humans love to throw into the face of our Creator: “If You are good, how could You allow this tragedy of a world to exist? And, worse, why do You allow nice people be caught in this meat-grinder?”
First, reading the Bible with this issue in mind ought to produce humility. No human will ever be able to discern the mystery of how evil is allowed. We are inadequate to fully comprehend any of the important terms here: good, evil, suffering or free will. The book of Job ends almost humorously: Job’s Maker asks him to try to add one scintilla of positivity to the question asked (Job 38-40:2). None of us, no matter how exercised we are about this, can do much but either choose despair or trust.
Second, all of us know the trilemma here:
- Good God? Why allow bad?
- All-Powerful God? Why allow bad?
- Thus, God must be neither good nor powerful!
While understandable, this trilemma is a reduction of reality, which does not meet the criteria of logic. Any worldview must deal meaningfully with experience. Some have said evil is an illusion, others think it is a repetitive cycle which is payment for human sins and a few have even argued that evil can be defeated by thinking nice thoughts.
The revelation of God confronts every incomplete, ludicrous or demonic interpretation of the way things are. The Bible always deals with reality. Creation was made good by an omnipotent Creator who made humans out of His Holy Love. All that He made was good, very good. Reflecting on that personal love in being able to choose, we freely rejected His loving authority. He was clear that our independence from Him was to cut ourselves off from life. Moral (volitional rebellion) and natural (volcanoes and viruses etc.) evil arose out of that kind of choice. We are the ones who unleashed chaos upon ourselves. Our choice does nothing to diminish His goodness or His power. The astounding reality is that His goodness and authority actually enables human freedom which we all use in rebellious ways.
Third, we need to let the Bible define the terms and our view of reality. Three important things stand out:
1. Goodness does not equate with happiness.
It used to bother me when I heard someone say, “God does not want you happy: He wants you to be holy.” But as I read Scripture, I see that theme throughout. God does not have to explain why anything happens. But His holy presence is made known to the faithful in every conceivable tragic circumstance. And the result of endurance in suffering believers who trust in the Only Good One look a lot like Jesus: patient, hopeful, sensitive and caring.
2. The evil that we can confront is on moral grounds.
Because our loving and sovereign Triune Creator loved us more than Himself, the Son of God took on all the implications of our evil and on “Good” Friday, suffered our freely chosen death in order to powerfully defeat every evil and to offer Job and you and me His Life. But more than that, when He rose from the dead, He infused us with Life. When a person contemplates that view of reality, questioning God’s character no longer predominates. Jesus set us free from our rebellion and offers every one of us hope. He is the enemy of our suffering in all of its natural evil, like the crises spawned by COVID-19, which was also met by the Incarnate God, the Lord Jesus Christ. He took the broken world which was put out of gear by the Fall, and in His death and resurrection, began to put all things back together again. Many biblical personages point to this re-creation that our Good, All-powerful Savior has produced out of love. He truly does make all things new. For the believer, it is a joy to watch Him do that in us, in time and soon, in the consummation of all things.
“I wonder if Jesus is asking us once more to follow Him so that in the midst of a worldwide crisis we might show His scarred but risen Body?”
3. We need a radical perspective on living in the midst of evil as disciples of Jesus.
One only has to read Peer once to know that both the editors and readers of this journal are a unique society. When many are avoiding hard questions, this magazine and its respondents reveal deep thinking and an equitable response of obedient love. You love atheists but you know that their view of the world leaves no hope at all. None of the major religions adequately address the trilemma sufficiently. We look to Jesus and accept His entry into our chaos and the radical reality of His Goodness, His Power and His Recreative Kingship. Nothing evil can stand against Him.
What if we not only engage well philosophically but also experientially? Famous missionary Helen Roseveare served Jesus for the majority of her life in Africa. There, she experienced as much pain, torture, abuse and rejection as one could imagine. One day, after an unspeakable abusive act, Jesus came to her and asked, “Helen, can I borrow your body? They don’t hate you. They hate me.” There is no philosophy that can describe that. When the Holy One can say to a good person in pain, “Could I trust you with this pain? Would you allow me to show Myself through this agony?”—it is there that you have the view of suffering before Jesus comes again.
God, to use C.S. Lewis’s famous metaphor, is shouting through the megaphone of pain once again. When all arguments, defenses and debates are over we, who call Jesus Lord, are left with the seemingly foolish and weak reality of struggling alongside a world that blames God when things don’t go well by our estimation. But that is the way a cross is always viewed. I wonder if Jesus is asking us once more to follow Him so that in the midst of a worldwide crisis we might show His scarred but risen Body?
For Further Study
- Thomas Oden’s Pastoral Theology, 223-248
- The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis; Lewis argues that human pain, animal pain and hell are not reasons to reject belief in a good and all-powerful God.
- He Gave Us A Valley by Helen Roseveare; Helen talks about her 12 years of missionary work in Africa, as well as the story of her medical work and church-building programs in the aftermath of the Belgian Congo Civil War
- Where is God in a Coronavirus World? By John Lennox; John describes how the Christian worldview helps to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic
- The Bearer by Dr. Bill Ury
- BreakPoint podcast episodes:
- God’s Answer to Suffering (April 10, 2020)
- An Interview with Dr. John Lennox (April 14, 2020)
- A Christian View of Suffering (April 21, 2020)
- How to Deal in Dark Times Ps 88 by Tim Keller
Three years ago, Bill and Diane were welcomed into the Army and were tasked with talking about the Holy One every day! They are living witnesses that in Jesus, things just get better and better. They live as near to their three grandsons as possible in Raleigh, NC. Bill has served as a professor of theology and also has a weekly podcast called the “Hour of Holiness”—which is only 25 minutes long.