Help! Does an all-powerful God cause the innocent to suffer?

Evil: a mass grave inside Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: the innocents suffer
A mass grave inside Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: the innocents suffer

The easy answers like “It’ll all turn out OK in the end. If it is not OK, it’s not the end” nearly make me sick to my stomach.

What does that say to those who are suffering horrifically in this very moment?


Dear Thoughtful Pastor: One of my lectures was on innocent suffering and how that can occur in a world “governed” by an omniscient, omnipresent and all-good God.  I covered about 30 answers, none of which appeared to be satisfactory.

Your column last week brought up the point that in the Exodus story, the writer chose to place the blame for the suffering of the Egyptians, including “innocent” Egyptian babies, on God.  When Pharaoh wanted to let the Hebrews leave, God “hardened his heart.” Result, all the people of Egypt suffered. Was this payback for how the Hebrews were treated?    

Interestingly, you flipped the blame in your analogy related to modern leaders.  You wrote, “But one leader, totally absorbed in him or herself and in need to hold onto perks of leadership and prestige can wreak havoc on the larger civilization.”  Does God still pull the strings of leaders today and “hardens their hearts” when He wants them to take actions they wouldn’t otherwise do or not

Where is free will in a leader’s decisions if God decides to “personally” intervene?  Presumably, Pharaoh never knew he was being manipulated.  Where is the accountability for a leader if God “made” him act in a specific way? How can we tell if God is “hardening our hearts” for reasons only He knows or we are doing the hardening ourselves?  What does this say about the nature of God?

For people of faith, this letter opens up all kinds of troubling questions and moral quandaries. Can you expand on this topic?

The eternal question: “Is God all-knowing, all-powerful AND good?” The all-knowing, all-powerful God could certainly harden hearts at will and intervene in any situation. But if God, intervening at will, is truly good, what about the carnage visited upon so many and so often?

I don’t know.

How good IS God?

I, too, have yet to see a satisfactory explanation. The Calvinist insistence that God predestines everything also suggests a nasty deity, one that merrily heaps torture, hurt, rape, famines and other devastations upon helpless humanity. Furthermore, only certain chosen ones escape an eternity of conscious torment.

The Armenian tradition, my theological underpinnings, insists that God has lovingly given freedom to humankind. That freedom includes the freedom to choose good or to choose evil. But then, what do we do with the biblical statements such you mentioned in the Egypt story:  “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Where’s the freedom there? Does that not make Pharaoh God’s puppet?

I genuinely do not have an answer. How can we affirm God as sovereign with power over all and then look at the suffering of so much of humanity without bein deeply troubled?

The easy answers like “It’ll all turn out OK in the end. If it is not OK, it’s not the end” nearly make me sick to my stomach.

What does that say to those who are suffering horrifically in this very moment?

What does it say to the millions of Jews who went to their torturous imprisonment and death under Adolf Hitler or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are starving today?

What does it say to those who undergo an ethnic cleansing?

Syrian refugees pass through Slovenia
Syrian refugees pass through Slovenia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

What does it say to the women who have repeatedly been raped to demean and shame their husbands and provide babies to their captors?

Is, as you have suggested, God bringing about those horrors for some unknown purpose?  Or is God helpless in the face of evil?

I don’t know.

But to reiterate what I often hear, “God is in control” seems to me to be the height of verbal cruelty when said to someone is suffering greatly. The phrase also assassinates the character of God by making God the responsible party in the suffering.

I genuinely wonder if any of us can find these truths using the Bible as the primary, if not only, resource.

The phrase, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me,” suggests that the Bible was written to and for 21st-century people who live in Westernized countries.

It wasn’t. Interpreting it that way shows no respect for the texts.

The Bible in the hands of the ignorant

Frankly, the Bible in the hands of ignorant people has come near to destroying many. I’ve just read the story of a father and son accused of enslaving a teenaged girl for three years while raping her repeatedly.

These two have insisted that the Bible only contains their defense. They might use the scenario in Judges 21 where God commands the Israelites without wives to kill all the men and married women in certain villages and then kidnap the remaining virgins for themselves.

Do we take this and say “well the Bible says it and God is in cont

rol it must be OK somehow?”

So, here’s my answer to your question: I do not know how to reconcile the ideas that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and genuinely good.

I wish I did.


ask-the-thoughtful-pastor[Note: a version of this column is scheduled to run in the January 27, 2017, edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.]


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Kudos for your honesty.

  • Etranger

    The only notion of God that ever made sense to me was the idea of a god who maybe created the universe and set it in motion. That allows for free will. The Christian tradition’s God (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent) only leads logically to despair.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    The Armenian tradition, my theological underpinnings, insists that God has lovingly given freedom to humankind.

    I will also note that, in addition to your discussion, this just begs the question. In what respect is this “freedom” really “loving”? Oh, I know that the usual lines are “Well if we didn’t have free will, we would all be robots.” And the answer to me is, “And? So what if we are? How would it be different if we were all robots, so long as we have the appearance of having free will? If we think we have free will, and are making our choices freely, does it matter to us if we really don’t and aren’t? I don’t see why it would.

    At least to us. However, as you point out, the problem is that if we don’t actually have free will, and we are all predestined to do what we do, then God has a lot to answer for, and is obviously a nasty beast. And since that is obviously unacceptable to worshipers, it must be that we have free will. And we better call it a gift, to convince everyone that it is important.

    Otherwise, there would have to be an explanation for why he doesn’t just provide apparent free will for everyone, but have everyone not choose to do evil?

    He’s omnipotent. He could do it if he wanted.

  • Capt. Dave

    A different -and more helpful- way to read Scripture is to understand that the writers of the Old and New Testaments were struggling to understand God and our relationship to the Divine just as we are today. That understanding changes from writer to writer, book to book. So there are no easy or consistent answers to the question of suffering in the pages of the Bible.

  • Ray Foucher

    The
    answers are all in the good book. It was well known in the past but perhaps
    lost more recently that God is often (by a Hebrew idiomatic structure) said to
    do that which He only allowed or permitted. Two examples:

    “Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do.” (Bullinger, E.W.,
    Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968,2008, p823)

    Note that Bullinger is often considered to have been one of the foremost authorities on Biblical figures of speech.

    “God is often said to do that which he merely commands, causes, or permits to be done.” (Bush, George, Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Genesis,
    Volume 1 (Chicago: B. C. Greigs & Co., 1838, p. 88)

    There are many other examples of this at: http://characterofgod.org/2016/05/i-create-evil/ and much more on that site showing that God is not responsible for all the suffering and that He is very good indeed.