How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? (RJS)

How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? (RJS) January 29, 2013

Chapter 2 of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God broaches the problem of pain. Given the pain and suffering in the world – either God is not good or God does not exist. This argument has many variations but there is an underlying thread of continuity. Certainly there is a great deal of pain and suffering in our world, not to mention out right evil – from a tsunami that wipes out a quarter of a million people in a day, a disease that takes the life of a child or young parent, or even an older parent, a drunken driver who kills a family in an instant, to intentional and premeditated exploitation, abuse, and murder, even a gunman who takes out a class of first graders.

The title question of the post comes up repeatedly.

I was listening recently to a Veritas Forum discussion held at MIT in 2011. This presentation features four MIT professors, two Christian and two non-Christian. The forum begins with a ten minute presentation by each person presenting their world view or their story.  The last half of the video is a question answer panel session.

The video is a bit long, but I recommend it if you are interested in the kinds of questions people ask and the kinds of answers that are given. This forum does not present final answers on anything – but it could be an excellent conversation starter. (If your schedule is like mine, it might be easier to find time to listen to the downloadable audio found at the Veritas Forum site under Life, the Universe, and MIT.)

Daniel Hastings, one of the Christian professors, brings up the issue of human suffering in his introductory comments.

(29:50-31:18) I start by saying there is a God who created the universe, and he is not an impersonal God. He has declared himself as a loving God who seeks a relationship with us and also gives us free will to choose him or not. And our purpose then is found in being in relationship with him. … So if I were to describe myself I would describe myself as a reasoning Christian person. And what that means to me is that the world and its associated events even with immense suffering caused by natural events must be ultimately explicable. And the reason I say that is because that is the piece that gives me the most doubt. How to explain suffering caused by natural events as opposed to suffering caused by evil.

In the question and answer section, when the question was “what personal experience would it take to change your religious beliefs?”  Hastings expanded on the problem of suffering a bit.

(52:25 – 53:15) I intimated in my comments, there are times when I have doubts, and the thing that frankly gives me the greatest doubt is the nature of suffering. But not suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man, because that is actually explicable on the basis of a concept of evil. It is suffering caused by natural events, right, It is when a tsunami kills, as the one off Indonesia did, two hundred thousand people far from the event, who on the face of it were just going about their lives. They weren’t doing bad things and suddenly they were gone. That causes me doubt.

This isn’t a question only for skeptics and agnostics, it is a question that hits at the soul for many Christians as well.

We cry out – If God is good and transcendent – why hasn’t he stopped evil and suffering?

Is there a reason for evil, even natural evil?

Or is “God” nothing more than an inconsistent myth?

There could be a “silver-lining.” Keller offers some of the usual arguments – who are we to think we know God’s ways and perhaps we don’t see the good reasons for what appears as evil in the world. After all God used suffering in the life of Joseph to save the Israelites from famine. … Of course this doesn’t address the issue of why there is famine (an evil) in the first place, or why a salvation that results in captivity and then the killing of first born sons of the Egyptians is in fact a “good” outcome. Come on – the real question here is this: “if there is a God why do we live in this story that includes at its core pain and suffering?” He gives examples of a few people (including himself) who have grown through the painful experiences of life. Certainly this is true … except for those who perish in the painful experience of life, for whom there is no silver lining.

One of the major reasons I’ve been running through my occasional series on the book of Job is to explore the problem of suffering more carefully. Job, at least on the surface, doesn’t allow the usual platitudes to stand. Most evangelical responses to the question of pain and suffering sound more like Job’s friends than anything else.  In his commentary Tremper Longman keeps coming back to a justification of suffering, including Job’s suffering, that is rooted in the Fall. But this has to be read into the book of Job.  And … even if we go back to Genesis 3 as the root cause of suffering, this doesn’t really answer the question. Why did God allow the Fall? Why did God allow the serpent into the garden in the first place? Why was the serpent “evil”?

I expect to get some serious disagreement on this – but I don’t think that a Calvinist approach to Christian doctrine allows an acceptable answer to the question suffering. There must be a God-allowed element of freedom and openness in God’s good creation. Here is the real power of the book of Job as it seems to me, especially in the last section of the book when God speaks to Job (the series will continue as I have time to read and process the commentaries by Walton and Longman).  The question is “who is wise?” and the answer is God. We rest in assurance of his wisdom and his justice whether we understand all the reasons or not.

God is not aloof and distant. But this isn’t to suggest that Keller’s approach is wrong. He doesn’t stop with the silver lining arguments (and admits that they are not really satisfactory, e.g. p. 27). He moves on to point out that we don’t worship a God aloof from the evil in the world – but a God who came himself incarnate in Jesus to experience and ultimately to conquer pain and suffering in the world. Resurrection, initiated by the resurrection of Jesus, is “not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted.” (p. 32) and “Jesus insisted that his return will be with such power that the very material world and universe will be purged of all decay and brokenness.” (p.33)

From 4:03 to the end of the clip above (from the last half of the interview linked last week): We may not know the reason why God allowed pain and suffering to enter the world, or why he has not yet eliminated pain and suffering. But whatever the reason is, it is not that God is aloof and did not care. The Christian view of God is that he cared enough to come down and enter into the pain and suffering in the world.

So…Far from disproving the existence of the Christian God – the existence of pain and suffering, however it came about, is the reason for the story we find ourselves in as Christians. The Christian story is the story of God come to earth and of evil conquered.

Which leads to my questions:

How would you respond to the proposition that pain and suffering demonstrates that an all-good and all-powerful God does not, cannot, exist? Why did God – does God – allow pain and suffering?

And… What has helped you most in struggling with natural evil as well as human evil and injustice in this world?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The forum at the top of this post was held at MIT. Cambridge and Boston are places not unlike Manhattan (where Keller pastors). The hard questions are asked with no holds barred. A commenter (#37) on last week’s post In an Age of Skepticism provided an example of the kind of approach a church can (and perhaps should) take in such an environment.

In Boston here we’ve been trying to respond to these two questions: “How can we make room in our community, within our local churches, for people to mature into robust Christian faith? Is there a place for honest interaction with all of the issues?” Since 2009, at Park Street Church, we’ve been running a “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” class (named after Mark Noll’s book of the same name), where we run an ‘An organic learning community in which we challenge each other to think and discuss difficult or untouched topics, in love and in the light of Scripture.’

You can read the rest of the description in the comment on the original post.

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