A Talk on God and Suffering (Given at “Theology Live” Event in Beeville, Texas)

A Talk on God and Suffering (Given at “Theology Live” Event in Beeville, Texas) June 25, 2013

God in Our Suffering

Roger E. Olson

            I’m no expert in suffering. I’ve neither suffered much myself nor observed much suffering close up. In fact, to be perfectly honest, suffering scares me. I’m a suffering sissy. I don’t like suffering. However, suffering is part of life in this world. There is no truer statement in the Bible than that “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Evil and innocent suffering are major challenges to my profession—theology, the “science of God.” How can God be all-powerful and all-good in face of such horrible suffering, including especially innocent suffering, as we experience in the world? Many philosophers and poets have raised this objection over the centuries but none more succinctly than Scottish skeptic David Hume: If God is all powerful he can stop evil; if God is all good he wants to stop evil; and yet evil is real. Some skeptics and atheists have called the problem of evil and especially innocent suffering, the suffering of children, “the rock of atheism”—especially in light of the holocaust.


Most recently atheist Christopher Hitchins who died in 2011 wrote God Is Not Great. His book relied heavily on the enormous suffering in the world to deny God’s existence. But most, if not all, of his arguments were familiar ones to those who have studied the history of philosophical theology. Theologians and religious philosophers have wrestled with this problem for thousands of years—as did some of the writers of Scripture. The books in print on the subject could fill a library. Unfortunately, there is no consensus among devout believers about why there is innocent suffering in God’s world. And every time a new book appears purporting to solve the dilemma, those of us steeped in the tradition of Christian theological reflection on it recognize a new form of an old answer. None has achieved the much sought but elusive status of “solution.”


There is a word for these attempts: “theodicy.” It was coined by an eighteenth century philosopher named Leibniz and it means “defending God”—more specifically “defending God’s providence in light of evil and innocent suffering.” Leibniz believed this is the best of all possible worlds. Why would God create anything less? Therefore, every instance of evil and innocent suffering must be necessary for the greater good. This is known as the “greater good defense” of God in the face of evil and innocent suffering. A popular version of it was presented by Christian evangelist Corey Ten Boom who, when she spoke to audiences about her experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, would hold up a tapestry showing only the back of it. She would point out how ugly the back looked. Then she would turn it around and show the front and how beautiful it was. Her point was that from our finite viewpoint the world seems an awful place, filled with gratuitous evils and sufferings, but from God’s viewpoint and ours eventually it is a beautiful place. The bumper sticker version is simply “God knows what he’s doing.”


There are other theodicies than that, however, and I’ll come to some of them eventually. Most will sound familiar to you if you’ve read any books on this subject or even thought deeply about it without reading. My point so far is simply that innocent suffering, the suffering of small children, for example, is a serious challenge to Christian faith in an all good and all powerful God, the God of Scripture and Christian tradition, and that Christian thinkers have risen to attempt to meet the challenge in various ways without arriving at consensus or settling on one response, one theodicy, as the total solution.


In fact, I will lay some of my cards on the table right now and tell you that no solution is totally satisfying and most Christian thinkers who engage in “theodicizing”—a verb I just invented—know that. Only a few claim to have settled on a totally satisfying solution.


You might wonder whether the Bible offers a theodicy. What about the Book of Job for example? The paradox is that the Bible says much about evil and innocent suffering but never offers a theodicy. Which leads at least some Christian thinkers to reject the whole project of theodicy. If God didn’t see fit to inspire one in Scripture why should we think it worthwhile to invent one? The Danish Christian thinker Kierkegaard, a notorious iconoclast of intellectual systems of philosophy and theology, rejected theodicy for biblical reasons. Many of his postmodern fans follow him in that and argue that theodicy is a human attempt to solve a problem rather than live with mystery. God is infinite, so we should simply embrace mystery and not attempt to think God’s thoughts after him or solve every problem our minds come up with when contemplating God. We turn God into an idol when we do that. Christian existentialist thinker Gabriel Marcel famously distinguished between a “problem” and a “mystery” and, following Kierkegaard, argued against turning every mystery about God into a problem for the human intellect to solve.


On the other hand, many astute and devout Christian thinkers have argued that in this modern world of doubt and skepticism theodicy is necessary as part of what the Bible means by being prepared to give every man an answer for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15). Theodicy is part of engaging in the mission of God in the modern world. Otherwise we leave the field to skeptics and atheists like Hume and Hitchins. Inquiring minds want to know and we do a deep disservice to sincere questioners when we mutter “mystery” rather than attempt to give intellectually satisfying answers to their questions about God.


The great German Lutheran theologian and preacher Helmut Thielicke came to America once after World War 2. He was one of the few leading pastors of Germany who did not support Hitler and survived anyway. He pastored a large church in Hamburg throughout the war including the devastating bombings in its later months. He wrote many books of theology and his sermons fill many volumes. When he was asked by an American during his visit to this country what one thing he thought Americans needed more than anything else he said “a theology of suffering.” Like many people around the world he thought America has been largely immune to the ravages of war, pestilence, famine, epidemic, earthquake. Because of that, he believed, Americans are ill equipped to respond to innocent suffering.


I have to agree with Thielicke. But I put it somewhat differently to my students. I think we church leaders, theologians and pastors, do not do enough to equip our people, our parishioners, to think about suffering ahead of time. Too often (and I know there are exceptions) we don’t offer them a clear minded, if not perfect, doctrine of God and suffering. We skirt the issue. Then, naturally, when people face extreme suffering, they ask “Where is God?” In the midst of their grief and anguish and confusion it hardly helps to offer a theodicy or theology of suffering. What we ought to do, I believe, is develop and offer to them the very best, most biblically and rationally satisfying, theology of suffering possible ahead of time so that when suffering comes, as it usually does, they already know an answer—the answer for their community of faith and their faith tradition.


So now I am going to tell you what I would teach my people were I a priest or pastor. It’s what I teach my students—while encouraging them to develop their own answers if they disagree with mine. I do not claim my answer is rationally satisfying. I know of no perfectly satisfying answer. My own answer leaves me with some unanswered and, I think, unanswerable questions. But, to me, anyway, it’s better than all the alternatives. Better in what sense? Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. To me, the answer I have come up with, touches all four of those criteria and comes closest to satisfying their demands—closer than any known alternative. You may disagree. Let’s find out.


First, we have some preliminary issues to discuss. One of them has to do with what type of suffering we’re talking about. What I mean is, what type of suffering offers the most profound challenge to Christian faith in an all good and all powerful God? What type of suffering is most difficult to explain? Perhaps there are different types of suffering that have different explanations? Which one needs the most justification in light of belief in God?


There is suffering that is deserved and suffering that is innocent—not deserved. I take it we all know that. Deserved suffering hardly requires explanation. Scripture is full of examples of deserved suffering. So is ordinary experience. If all suffering in the world were deserved, there would be no need for theodicy. What calls for explanation is innocent suffering—especially the suffering of innocents. Then there is therapeutic suffering versus gratuitous suffering. Some suffering, we all recognize, is therapeutic—necessary for healing. Some suffering, however, seems to be absolutely gratuitous—serving no good purpose. Many question that until I mention the suffering of a child being murdered by a sexual predator or a soldier or concentration camp guard. Then, suddenly, most people intuitively agree that some suffering is gratuitous. Finally, there is subjective suffering and there is objective suffering. In other words, some suffering is imaginary and some is real. A person born into wealth may think he is suffering when his stock portfolio takes a plunge during a recession. That’s entirely different from a child suffering cancer. One is subjective, imaginary suffering; the other is objective, real suffering.


So when we talk about God and suffering we need to be clear that we are talking about innocent, gratuitous, objective suffering. That’s the kind that rightly causes some people to doubt God’s goodness, power or existence; that’s the kind of suffering that presents a real challenge to Christian belief.


Another preliminary matter has to do with the Bible and suffering. What does the Bible say about the subject? Why can’t we just turn to the Bible for our answer? Doesn’t the Bible contain all the answers? The Book of Job is the only sustained discussion of suffering in the Bible. It offers no theodicy. In fact, it rejects the theodicies of Job’s “friends.” All it tells us is that not all suffering is deserved. The book was apparently written with that one purpose in mind—to reject the common belief that suffering is always the result of sin in the suffering person’s life.


The Bible offers examples of suffering and sometimes explains their reasons. Some suffering is for spiritual discipline—to remind people of their need of God and turn their minds toward God. Some suffering is the result of sin and rebellion, but not all. Some suffering is punishment, but not all. Much suffering seems to be simply embedded in the human condition of finitude and fallenness. Some is for God’s glory. Never addressed directly, however, is the problem of totally innocent suffering—the suffering of innocents. Nor does the Bible provide a clear, comprehensive, rationally satisfying theodicy—“This is why all suffering is justified in God’s world.” Rather, as many Bible scholars point out, the Bible’s alternative to theodicy is eschatology—the promise that someday all innocent suffering will end. “Every tear will be wiped away” and the creation will be liberated from its “bondage to decay.”


I believe one of the great mysteries of suffering in the Bible is often overlooked in people’s thinking about suffering—God’s own suffering. I believe that is an essential part of any holistic explanation of suffering for God’s people and for skeptics. It’s both a mystery and part of a solution to the problem of innocent suffering—that God, the creator of heaven and earth, suffers with those who suffer innocently and for those who suffer guiltily.


Now I will turn to theological perspectives on suffering. Here we move into the realm of rational speculation about God and suffering—especially God and innocent suffering.


Some theologians make the whole problem magically disappear by denying, whether explicitly or implicitly, God’s goodness or power. Traditional Christianity, of course, claims that God is both perfectly good in a way analogous to our own highest and best intuitions of goodness, and perfectly capable—all powerful in the sense of capable of doing whatever is consistent with his own nature. Take away either of those two claims and the problem of innocent suffering magically disappears. But with that magical disappearance arises automatically a problem greater than that of suffering—namely, a less-than-perfectly-good God or an incapable, impotent God are both unworthy of worship. And they are not the God of the biblical revelation.


Divine determinism is that form of speculative theology, common in some Protestant circles, that claims that God “designs, ordains, and governs” everything without exception including all events of suffering including innocent suffering—for his own glory. One of the most influential contemporary pastors who promotes this view to thousands of so-called “young, restless, Reformed” Christians is Baptist pastor and author John Piper whose books sell by the millions. According to him, and his precursors such as Puritan theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards, God foreordains and renders certain even the agonizing death of an infant. God thus becomes sheer power without goodness in any sense of “goodness” meaningful to us.


The opposite speculative solution to the problem of innocent suffering is process theology—the view common in liberal Protestant circles that God is not all powerful but only possesses the power of persuasion. Some years ago Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner wrote Why Bad Things Happen to Good People—a book that communicated a version of process theology. Contemporary Christian process thinkers abound in mainstream seminaries. Their solution to the problem of evil and innocent suffering is that, to quote their guru philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, God is the “fellow sufferer who understands” but cannot really relieve suffering or abolish evil. This theology sacrifices any hope for eventual overcoming of evil and innocent suffering in order to get God off the hook. God is not in any way responsible for evil or suffering; he does the best he can to persuade creatures to stop hurting each other, but he lacks the power to intervene in human or natural affairs. In this view, God is a cosmic cheerleader but not the creator of heaven and earth. He lures every being toward his vision of perfection but cannot coerce.


Another speculative answer, one that does not sacrifice God’s goodness or power, distinguishes between two wills of God—God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will.” It appeals to God’s self-limitation to explain why there is evil and innocent suffering in God’s world without sacrificing God’s goodness or power. A contemporary example of this in Christian theology is pastor and author Gregory Boyd who wrote Is God to Blame? But he stands in a long tradition of Christian thought called Arminian theology (after Jacob Arminius who died in 1610). According to Boyd and Arminians, God has to limit his power to allow for human free will. Human rejection of God has pushed God away so that the world is under a self-chosen curse. Evil powers, whether personal or structural or both, rule the world. God depends on us, for now anyway, to alleviate suffering. That there be no innocent suffering was God’s antecedent will—antecedent to human rebellion against God by means of misuse of free will. That there be innocent suffering in this fallen world is part of God’s consequent will—consequent to human rebellion.


This answer preserves God’s power, however self-limited, and claims to preserve God’s goodness. God wants to use his power to end evil and innocent suffering but doesn’t for now—and therein lies a problem with this view. Why doesn’t God exercise his power to end innocent suffering now? Why does he wait? That’s the Achilles Heel critics of this view claim to see and point out. As one process theologian told me, if God could end the suffering of children he should and would if he were perfectly good and all powerful. Advocates of this view, however, argue that God respects free will and cannot intervene every time someone is about to misuse free will to cause innocent suffering or else free will would be a mirage, an illusion, not real. And God cannot intervene to stop every instance of innocent suffering from illness or calamity because that would be to make this world something other than it is—a “veil of soul making” in which there must be risk and danger in order for people to recognize their need for God. C. S. Lewis, an advocate of this view, said that suffering is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world to its need of him.”


Another speculative theological view attributes innocent suffering to Satan in a dualistic way. That is, Satan is credited with having equal power with God—at least for now—until some mysterious eschatological denouement occurs in which God conquers Satan and takes away his power to wreak havoc including innocent suffering in this world. Ultimately, this view has to fall back on the preceding one—the distinction between God’s antecedent and God’s consequent wills—Arminianism—to explain why Satan has so much power in the interim—before God “steps in,” as it were, to defeat him. It can only be that humans have given Satan that much power over themselves if God is allowing it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer seemed to have something like this view in mind when he said that God has allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto a cross. Both Jesus and Paul referred to Satan as the “prince of this world”—meaning of this present evil age—which seems to give this view biblical support. But, again, the problem is, why God allows Satan to have this power if he could reign him in and stop innocent suffering. Both of these views, which may be only one view, have no real answer to that question except God’s patience. But why is God waiting when he will eventually stop in to stop innocent suffering? “God’s patience” doesn’t really seem to answer that.


A final speculative theological solution to the problem of God and innocent suffering is that innocent suffering is simply part of finitude. Finite being is subject to it; there’s no escaping it without escaping finitude. Finitude is fallenness and innocent suffering is a result of fallenness. This was the solution of the ancient Gnostics—a group of second century Christians Catholic and Orthodox Christians rejected as heretics. It is a solution that has cropped up in various forms throughout Christian history and usually been harshly rejected by established forms of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. One of its most recent forms is so-called Christian Science and its cousin Unity. These so-called “New Thought” religious groups are the modern heirs of ancient Gnosticism. They say that suffering is illusion and can be overcome by positive thinking which is “getting in tune with the infinite”—the mind of God. That hardly solves the problem of infant suffering, however. And it hasn’t worked for most adherents of New Thought.


There may be other speculative theological solutions to the problem of innocent suffering, but these are the major ones. Every time I see a new book about the subject, purporting to offer a “new solution,” I quickly recognize it as a version of one of these. Or of simply rejecting all speculative solutions in favor of embrace of mystery or waiting for eschatological relief.


There is one other approach to the problem of innocent suffering that holds promise, but it isn’t a theodicy. It does not claim to solve the problem speculatively or rationally. It aims at pastoral comfort rather than defeat of skeptics’ challenges. And it has become extremely popular in recent decades even though it has been around for about a century and a half. That is the approach that says the Christian answer to innocent suffering is that God suffers with those who suffer innocently and for those who suffer guiltily.


In his Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer said “Only the suffering God can help.” This has become the theme of countless post-holocaust books, articles and sermons on innocent suffering from a Christian perspective. In a nutshell, the approach is twofold: 1) There is no speculative, theoretical solution to the problem of suffering, so 2) The answer to innocent suffering is pastoral and that is that God suffers with those who suffer innocently and suffers for those who suffer guiltily. As early as the mid-nineteenth century New England pastor and theologian Horace Bushnell said that before there was a cross on the hill of Calvary there was a cross in the heart of God. That was revolutionary because traditional theology said God cannot suffer. God is, Christian tradition says, impassible—incapable of suffering. Bushnell rejected that most emphatically which was one reason he was considered a revisionist heretic by his more conservative New England heirs of the Puritans.


Tradition says God is incapable of suffering, impassible, because to suffer is to change and God is perfect. To change is to change either away from perfection or toward perfection. God, being eternally perfect, cannot more away from or toward perfection. Suffering is change because something always causes a person to suffer. God cannot be caused to be anything. He is always perfect fullness of being—pure actuality without potentiality. Critics call that the “logic of perfection” and see it as an element of Greek philosophy wrongly imported into Christian thought by the early church fathers. Bushnell and Bonhoeffer, among others during the last century and a half, radically rejected both God’s immutability, unchangeableness, except of character, and his impassibility—on the grounds that a God who is love must suffer with those he loves who suffer.


How does this differ from process theology? Process theology says God’s suffering with is involuntary; Bushnell, Bonhoeffer and other orthodox Christian thinkers who have adopted the idea of a suffering God in modernity see God’s suffering as voluntary in the sense that God could have avoided suffering by not creating the world or by preventing sin and its consequences. Once God created and permitted human defection from fellowship with him into sin God had no choice but to suffer because God is love.


I see this pastoral approach of emphasizing God’s suffering with and for those who suffer as compatible with the speculative view of Arminianism—the distinction between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. In other words, if we are going to say pastorally, as I think we must, that God is present with those who suffer, suffering with them and for them, because God is love, then we must say that this is due to a voluntary self-limitation of God in relation to creation itself. Innocent suffering is a side effect of creature’s misuse of free will. It is part of the human condition under the curse of defection from God. We have pushed God out of the center of our world and our lives onto the cross. God goes voluntarily to the cross—not only of Calvary but of the world of suffering. God is present whenever and wherever innocents suffer because he is love and cannot but suffer with them. This still leaves some questions unanswered. But I believe it relieves much of the stress of believing in an all good, all powerful God in face of innocent suffering in God’s world. God is not a distant, unaffected deity “watching from a distance,” but a God intimately involved in suffering with those who suffer and for them.


But how does God’s suffering with the suffering help them? It helps his reputation, but how does it help those who suffer? God’s suffering presence with gives comfort and hope. Comfort in knowing that one is not alone in suffering. Without God’s fellow suffering one is alone. Only God can be “in” one’s suffering suffering with. And God’s suffering with gives hope that God can and will heal that suffering if not in this life in the next. God is eternal and infinite and will not suffer forever.


In sum, then, there is no totally satisfying intellectual solution to the problem of suffering. Suffering without God is meaningless. Suffering with a God who cannot really help is useless. Innocent suffering for God’s glory is unjust. Suffering because others have rejected God and defected from his will hardly seems just unless we shift from individualism to a more corporate, solidaristic view of humanity: “We’re all in this mess together.” Even then, however, the question lingers of why God does not stop innocent suffering now rather than later. All we can say is that God has his reasons even if we cannot fathom what they are. In the meantime, until innocent suffering ceases forever in creation’s redemption (Romans 8), we can take comfort in the fact that the God of the universe is present with those who suffer suffering with them and that he has gone to the cross in the person of Jesus Christ to take away the guilt of all who suffer guiltily and make possible their final liberation and reconciliation.

I want to end with this word of exhortation. The people of God need to know from their pastors, priests, bishops and theologians what they are supposed to believe, based on revelation, tradition, reason and experience, about God and that includes about God and innocent suffering. If we Christian leaders do not step up and teach them a view of God’s providence we cannot be surprised when they cry out to us “Where is God?” when suffering strikes. We abdicate our pastoral duty when we avoid the subject. And when we offer trite or heretical solutions that cannot stand up to the people’s need to believe and hope.


I offer these final summarizing thoughts:

1) Innocent suffering is not God’s antecedent will; it is only God’s will insofar as humanity insists on keeping God at a distance and defecting from his fellowship and will.

2) God does not foreordain or cause innocent suffering; it does not glorify him. To believe that is to detract from God’s goodness and love.

3) God can and will abolish innocent suffering; we are living in an interim period before that day of liberation. Why God waits is not revealed to us. We must learn to wait in hope.

4) God suffers with those who suffer innocently and for those who suffer guiltily.

5) When we suffer we should realize that God may have something good to bring out of it if we hand it over to him and seek his will for that. And we should take comfort and hope in God’s suffering with us when there is no possible purpose for our suffering which is often the case. It is simply part of the human condition because of the defection from God.

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