Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: Why Does God Allow So Much Suffering?
Why Does God Allow So Much Suffering?
Richard Dawkins looks at all of this, combined with the impersonal forces that have forged our bodies through suffering, violence, and death, and declares that our universe “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
How can the hypothesis of a loving, powerful God stand under the crushing weight of human distress? Does Christianity work only for those whose lives are not shipwrecked? Must we gloss over others’ distress to believe in an omnipotent, benevolent Creator?
This lesson will examine three broad frameworks for suffering: suffering without God, suffering from a Buddhist perspective, and suffering in the Christian worldview. It will suggest that suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has always been built.
SUFFERING MINUS GOD
For some, removing God from the equation promises relief. Suffering happens. There is no meaning, no reason, no hope; so we can stop trying to read the tea leaves. At first, this may seem like a mature approach. Make what meaning you can out of your life, and don’t expect a higher power to help or care. Stephen Hawking believed the brain is a computer that stops working when its components fail: “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers,” he declared; “that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Dawkins’s relentless chain—“no design, no purpose, no evil, no good”—illuminates a problem. This bleak view of the universe erodes the foundations on which we balance life and humanness itself. If there is no good or evil, why do we lament? If our sympathy for others is just a by-product of evolutionary kinship, why empathize with the suffering of those outside our tribe? And if our sense of self is just a delusion, the meaningfulness of life in the face of suffering evaporates along with our moral agency
Atheism wants to believe we are computers with delusions of personhood.
A nonreligious person was dying. She talked hopefully to her believing friend about the universe having some kind of plan. Because the one loved her friend, she pleaded with her—gently—not to reach for that placebo. If there is no God, we still suffer, but there is no “universe” to care. There is no design, no purpose, no evil, no good—nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. We must stare into that abyss and not fool ourselves with platitudes.
BUDDHISM AND SUFFERING
Buddhism (at least in its Westernized forms) offers refuge from the bleakness of atheism without the strictures of “organized” religion. It begins with the challenge of suffering and offers humans a way to cope.
Buddha’s story: The man who became the Buddha was a prince. But a prophecy declared that he would one day leave the palace and turn his back on the kingdom. To avert this, the king did everything in his power to keep his son happy. The young prince married a beautiful princess, was given a stunning harem, and was prevented from leaving the comforts of the palace. But he grew bored and eventually persuaded his father to let him go out in a chariot.
To ensure that his son continued to avoid unhappiness, the king ordered all his aged, sick, and disabled subjects to stay at home. But one old man remained on the street, and the prince discovered that everyone ages. The next day, the prince saw a sick man and discovered disease. On the third day, the prince saw a corpse and learned, to his horror, that everyone dies. As predicted, he left the palace and entered the forest to begin his journey of enlightenment. When he emerged, the Buddha proclaimed that life is suffering, and that the only means of escape is to break the ties of attachment that bind us to life.
Research shows that even people in deeply undesirable circumstances tend to be more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives. Perhaps the key to facing suffering is not detachment and removal but meaning and love. Nonattachment may shield us from suffering. To love is to be vulnerable. To desire and strive is to risk disappointment. Nonattachment also deprives us of our greatest joys. Striving, desire, and deep attachment can lead us to the precipice. But they can also bring us to treasures nonattachment cannot find.
Is there another option for coping with suffering? Can we pursue desire, cling to attachment, and strive for good things while finding meaning in the suffering that comes?
A CHRISTIAN APPROACH TO SUFFERING:
The story of Martha and Mary at the death of Lazarus offers an entry point to a whole biblical theology of suffering.
When Jesus Doesn’t Come
At the death of their brother, the sisters dialed 911 for Jesus.
John 11:5-6 - Jesus frequently healed strangers. He even healed long-distance. But this time, when his closest friends cry out, he waits. This is the first reality with which Christians must grapple. Sometimes, we call for Jesus through our tears, and he does not come.
Psalm 121 -
But the NT has a few models for our seemingly unanswered cries:
Luke 22:42; 2 Cor. 12:9 - C. S. Lewis grieved for the wife God had unexpectedly given him—complete with the death sentence of her terminal cancer—he reflected, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’ ” At times, belief in an omnipotent God adds one more desperate tear on the face of suffering. Jesus could have come when Mary and Martha called. But he did not. Does Jesus not love these sisters after all?
When Jesus Comes
John 11:21-22 - Lazarus is dead, but she still believes her Lord can help.
“But what about now, Jesus? What about now? Why won’t you help me now?”
In this moment, Martha stands where many Christians stand when faced with suffering. We have ultimate promises: one day Jesus will return and put the world to rights. But we are much more like children than philosophers. Our pain is real and urgent. It refuses to be soothed by faraway hope. Neat, theological answers will not do. But neither are they all that Christianity offers.
When Jesus finally comes, he does not fix Martha’s problem. Instead, he changes the terms of engagement.
He is talking to Martha, who is reeling from Lazarus’s death—a death that has cost her emotionally, and likely also jeopardized her security at a time when most women depended on male relatives for support. Martha longs to have Lazarus back. But Jesus looks her in the eye and says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” As you stand here in your desperate grief, your greatest need is not to have your brother back again. It’s to have me.
Jesus here claims not that he is offering good guidelines for life but that he himself is life: life in the face of suffering, life in the face of death.
All parents know that, at times, they must let their children suffer. We hold our crying babies still while strangers stick needles into their healthy flesh. They look at us through tears of betrayal, and we cannot explain that we are making them suffer now to save them from future disease. Some parents are faced with a far harder task: allowing doctors to poison their children with drugs that ravage their bodies, making them vomit and lose their hair as they lie shut up in a hospital for days, or weeks, or months. The pain is bitter, but with this cruel course these parents hope to save their child’s life.
John 11:27, 32, 35 - These words are strange because we know how easily these tears could have been spared. If Jesus had only come when he was called, no one would be crying.
We have all had the experience of being comforted by someone who does not truly understand what we are going through. It is often unsatisfying. But Jesus is no remote deity, watching suffering from a safe distance. He is the God who inhabits our suffering.
Isaiah 53:3 - Jesus does not just feel sorry for us in our weakness and pain. He takes that agony on himself.
Isaiah 53:4-5 - In this prophecy, grief, suffering, and sickness are rolled up together with sin and guilt and loaded onto the Messiah’s back. And when Jesus comes, he carries that load. He bears the moral weight of guilt and sin in our place. But he also bears the heartbreak of our suffering. Jesus holds us close as we lament. He weeps with us as we weep. He knows the end of the story, when he will wipe every tear from our eyes. But this does not stop him from cleaving to us in our pain. In fact, pain is a place of special intimacy with him.
We see this in our own lives. We can laugh with anyone. But we cry with those closest to us; and the bond is strongest when their suffering connects with ours.
Left by those closest to him, beaten by strangers, stripped and abused and hung up on a cross to die—there is no wound of ours Jesus cannot touch. He has even experienced abandonment by his Father. On the cross he cried out with the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
Jesus knows his resurrection is coming. And yet he cries out in his distress. Jesus knows the end of Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s story. And yet he weeps.
“Lazarus, Come out!”
John 11:39, 43-44
Jesus’s power over death is absolute. I believe it is the only hope we have in the face of our inevitable end. But one thing that is fascinating about this story is how little focus there is on Lazarus himself. Rather, the narrative draws our gaze to profound questions: Why, if Jesus planned to heal Lazarus, did he not just do so in the first place? Why did he let Lazarus die, and leave Mary and Martha mourning for days? Why not tell Martha what he was planning to do right away? In this strange stretching of the story, we get a glimpse of the whole biblical framework for suffering. The space between Lazarus’s death and Jesus’s calling of him out of the tomb is the space in which Martha sees Jesus for who he really is: her very life.
This story illuminates both suffering and prayer.
Jesus is not a means to an end, a mechanism through which Martha can change her circumstances. He is the end. Her circumstances drive her to him. It’s not that her suffering or our suffering doesn’t matter: it matters enough to bring tears to the eyes of the Son of God! But it matters like a first meeting matters to marriage, or like birth matters to motherhood. It is an entry point to relationship, a relationship formed through suffering as much as through joy. If, as Jesus claims, the goal of our existence is relationship with him, finding him in our suffering is the point.
Suffering and Sin
We are tempted to believe that suffering is a punishment for sin. But the Bible is clear that—while sin and suffering are clearly connected in a universal sense, and living in rebellion against God can cause us heartache now—the amount of suffering a person endures is not proportional to his or her sin. The Old Testament book of Job dramatizes this point. Jesus reinforces it. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man who was blind from birth, and his disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus replies, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
There are versions of Buddhism that teach karma and reincarnation. Within that logic, our present circumstances are the result of past actions: sins in a past life can determine suffering here and now. Not so in Christianity. Indeed, if anything, Christianity reverses that paradigm: those who live in privilege now are warned of an afterlife of suffering if they do not take the radical medicine of Christ.
While we can absolutely look for meaning in our suffering, we should not use it as a measuring stick for guilt, or think that if we only prayed harder or had more faith or did better, our lives would be suffering-free.
Suffering and Love
We must also reject the idea that if God loves us, he cannot intend for us to suffer.
Our beliefs about God and suffering expose the fault lines between our natural assumptions and the biblical story.
The loving, omnipotent God of our imagination would move swiftly from creation to new creation, from the garden of Eden of Genesis to the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation. But the God of the Bible charts a different course. He spreads his story out over thousands, even millions, of years and weaves in all the mess of human history—sin and sex and death and historical accident. And at the center of history, he stakes the cross of his beloved Son. Jesus’s death is no accident. It is not even Plan B. It is the spoke around which all human history revolves, the central peg of reality itself. This brutal death of an innocent man—bearing a world’s weight of sin and guilt and suffering—is the focal point of the story. Indeed, it is the lens through which we visualize the narrative itself. But it is not the last word.
Suffering and Story
The Lord of the Rings is a classic masterpiece. At a low point in the narrative, two central characters, Frodo and Sam, discuss where they are in the story. Sam recalls how he used to think that people in tales went looking for adventure because their lives were dull. But, he reflects, “that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.” Frodo enjoys the story Sam starts to tell about their own adventure. But then he stops his friend: “We’re going on a bit too fast. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’ ”
The hobbits do not know how their story will end. If it ended in this moment, it would be bleak and hopeless. But the story goes on. Tolkien takes them through darkness and suffering and loss to a painful victory, as Gollum bites the ring off Frodo’s hand. The story leaves Frodo scarred in body and mind. But it is a victory nonetheless, and one of which he and Sam hear songs sung and stories told. Finally, changed and matured, Frodo goes with the elves to their land across the sea. Tolkien’s work was sculpted by his Christian faith, and that was a faith not just in Jesus’s death but also in his resurrected life. The journey of all the central characters is through darkness—even death—to new life. But tap them on the shoulder at the darkest moment, and none would know where they are in the story.
If you are in the midst of suffering now, hope of a happy ending may feel crass.
From an atheist perspective, not only is there no hope of a better end to the story; there is no ultimate story. There is nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. From a Christian perspective, there is not only hope for a better end; there is intimacy now with the One whose resurrected hands still bear the scars of the nails that pinned him to his cross. Suffering is not an embarrassment to the Christian faith. It is the thread with which Christ’s name is stitched into our lives.
Without suffering, a story’s characters cannot develop. Without fellowship in suffering, they cannot truly bond. The Bible begins and ends with happiness, but the meat of the story is raw. Christians are promised that one day, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4). But we are not promised that God will not allow us to cry in the first place. What end could possibly be worth all this pain? Jesus says he is.
Christians are not called to compassionate detachment. Christians truly following Jesus are deeply attached, and covered in tears—their own, and those of others—just like their Lord.
Sometimes we will win the battle. Sometimes we will lose. At times we feel Christ’s presence flooding our meager heart. At other times we cling on for dear life, not knowing the end of the story. But we must stake our life on this claim: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Next month: How could a loving God send people to hell?