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Why God Doesn’t Stop Suffering

March 1, 2019

This is a question that comes up quite regularly when debating atheists: why doesn’t God deal with all the suffering in the world? Why doesn’t he stop all evil acts? This is a very good question, albeit not easy to answer in a tweet or two! I would also like it if he did, but since that doesn’t seem to be happening (although I think he does intervene more than we realise), I guess I need to explain why I still believe God is good and compassionate…

C S Lewis already dealt with this question, primarily in The Problem of Pain, and I’d really rather you read his book; but since that might be asking too much (and might also be seen as evading the question), here’s my attempt at an answer…

First an important observation: if God was to actively intervene against all suffering, he would have to intervene not just against what we consider evil but what he considers evil. We might not think our sin is causing any harm, but God sees every aspect of it, including its negative effect on our souls and our relationships with other people. This means he would have to intervene a lot more often than most people imagine when using this objection!

Secondly, God’s love means he wants to save us from the consequences of our own sinful nature; that overrides any concerns about temporary suffering in this world. If eliminating suffering means humans become more selfish and sinful he couldn’t do it, as it would violate his principles.

We often forget that suffering in itself can have positive side-effects. C S Lewis served in the trenches in WWI, and highlights how courage and altruism thrived in those terrible circumstances. The same applies to all kinds of contexts: if there was no temptation to sin, how could we choose holiness rather than self-gratification?

Lewis also argues quite cogently that God allows pain and suffering in order to remind us that this world is not all there is. While life is pleasant we will be tempted to assume all is well and forget our mortality; once we’re hit by war, disease or heartache, we’re reminded that all is not well – and we might be more likely to turn to God for rescue.

Thirdly, we could turn the question on its head: maybe God wants us to do something about the suffering in the world. He’s told us to love our neighbour, to be generous, to live for his kingdom rather than our own selfish desires – so he needs to provide opportunities for us to do just that. If there was no need, how could we be generous? If there was no aggression, how could we choose to love our enemy rather than seek revenge?

Still, that can’t be the whole answer. There’s a lot of suffering that doesn’t produce either conversions or a holy character; and God knows we’re not as altruistic as we should be, so trusting us to deal with suffering might be asking too much.

So let’s look at another angle – again, C S Lewis explains it better, but I’ll give it a go anyway:

Basically, if God stopped every human act from having bad consequences, the world would be a weird place indeed. The more God intervenes to thwart the natural results of our choices, the more unpredictable the world becomes: we would never know if the normal laws of nature will apply to any one action, since we can’t know if a seemingly innocent action would have undesirable consequences and thus be providentially prevented. And choice would become basically pointless if you could actually only choose what God wanted you to choose.

You might like to play heavy metal at high volume, which drives your neighbour crazy. If God allows your stereo to keep blasting, he’s causing your neighbour to suffer. If he jams the volume control, he’s interfering with your free will and the laws of nature. The only long-term solution is to change either your preferences or those of your neighbour, in either case interfering on a much deeper level than just “stopping suffering”.

Let’s imagine I’m off to play golf. Nothing wrong with that, but as it happens, my companion is a sore loser, which means me winning would entail a certain amount of suffering for both of us. Should God therefore make sure I lose, regardless of who’s the better player?

Or take adultery as a (more serious) example. If I have an affair and decides to end my marriage, this will cause pain to my wife – so God should intervene. But how? If he just stops the actual technicalities, the hurtful betrayal is still there. If he prevents me from ever meeting the other woman, we end up with a world where bad choices don’t result in anything, which means a world where choice becomes meaningless. If he prevents me from even thinking the thoughts that led to the affair, he is interfering not just with my free will but with the very core of our being: thoughts, feelings, ethical decision-making – the very things that make us human.

Obviously, God could do all these things, and probably often has – the occasional divine intervention wouldn’t be a problem. But in order to eliminate all suffering, he would have to keep doing it all the time, to every single human being, which would indeed make the world unpredictable beyond measure.

And there’s another dimension to suffering caused by human sin (which admittedly is most of it): the problem goes beyond merely “stopping suffering”. As soon as I’ve approved of a sinful action, I have sinned – even if it never happens. So in order to eliminate all evil from the world, God has to start much earlier: he has to make our very thoughts and desires conform to his. He needs to change us: not just stop individual evil acts but stop us from even wanting to perform those acts – otherwise there’s no real solution to the problem of evil, only a constant interfering with human choices…

Now, if I stopped here, I would be saying that God simply can’t do anything about suffering. That would not be true. God hates evil and the suffering it causes, and he has promised to restore the world to its original blueprint: no suffering, sickness or death. The snag is that he can’t override our free will in order to make us fit for such a world; so he offers to transform humans into creatures that would fit in such a world. But we have to agree to it.

As a follower of Jesus, I voluntarily agree to submit to God’s will, and I agree with God’s condemnation of the sinful nature which causes me to want things that are opposed to God’s will. I want God to remove the lust and cowardice and laziness that I find in myself; not because I’m afraid of punishment but because I believe that God’s original design for humanity is much better than what we have since become.

And God has promised to do just that: through faith in Jesus we can be set free from those sinful inclinations. Those that are thus liberated from sin will be allowed to live in the renewed universe: not because God has randomly set faith in Jesus as the entry requirement, but because Jesus died in order to make this whole operation possible. Only people who submit to Jesus as King and Saviour will be able and willing to have God change their basic, sinful nature.

Now, because God respects our free choices, those who would rather stay who they are, with all the sinful inclinations and selfish preferences intact, will be allowed to remain like that forever. But if that is your choice, God can’t allow you into his perfect, recreated universe; instead you will find yourself eternally on the outside, stuck with your own choices and impulses. This is what the Bible calls “hell”.

This is the ultimate answer to the problem of suffering: one day God will intervene decisively to remove all causes of suffering from his recreated universe. Until that day, the free choices of sinful humans will continue to cause suffering and pain, not because God wants it but because he’s chosen to allow our choices to have real consequences.

And since he himself suffered excruciating pain at the hands of us sinful humans, we can’t accuse him of standing aloof while we suffer. He knows what a painful place this world is; which is why he’s promised to remake it one day. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to that day!

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