Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Lesson 4, Introduction

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Introduction

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Why doesn’t God immediately put an end to misery?

How do we reconcile anguish and suffering with the Bible's portrayal of a loving God?

 

Many people, the faithful and the faithless, look at calamities—whether personal, national or global—and agonize over these questions. In this lesson we will see how the Bible addresses this enigma: Why does God allow suffering?

“The most overwhelming objection to belief that there is a wise and loving power behind the universe is the existence of so much pain and anguish in the world."
Richard Harries, author

We tend to be comfortable believing in God when all is going our way. But let tragedy strike and we can quickly begin to doubt His very existence.

Look at the spiritual condition of the world. Agnostics—people who declare their skepticism of the existence of a supreme, intelligent Creator who controls the universe—influence educational, scientific and governmental policies. The existence of suffering in the world is one of the most common justifications for agnostics’ lack of belief and faith in God.

Not understanding the reasons that suffering abounds, they conclude that neither God nor religion offers answers to the world’s problems. As British historian and author Paul Johnson observed: “I suspect that the problem of evil drives more thoughtful people away from religion than any other difficulty.”

In Europe, for example, agnosticism is rampant. There the erosion of religious faith began in earnest when the enormity of the suffering and death of World War I hit home to the millions of surviving Europeans. More than 10 million had died and another 20 million had been wounded in that massive conflict.

As British author David L. Edwards wrote: “The experience in Europe in the age of science repeatedly shows that belief in God can be overwhelmed by suffering” ( The Futures of Christianity , p. 339). He explained how this came about: “The first world war was the great [religious] catastrophe. It did less physical damage than the second world war-but far more damage to Christianity . . . Very little in the traditions of the European churches had equipped them for the spiritual crisis . . . They all encouraged their members to pray for victory and safety, only to find that a cloud of poison gas obscured all the doctrines which had seemed so bright in days of peace . . . It was a war that did great damage to the old style of the churches’ teaching that God was in control like the clergyman in his parish” (pp. 306-307).

Since then most Europeans have come to believe that faith in God is hardly justifiable. Many have expressed the opinion that God was deaf to anguished cries emanating from the rain-soaked trenches of World War I and the Nazi death camps of World War II. This wave of doubt has been so great in Europe that in some areas many ancient church buildings have been sold for use as bookshops, office space and even nightclubs.

How do we reconcile anguish and suffering with the Bible’s portrayal of a loving God? Why would He allow the horrendous miseries that afflict humanity? Does the Bible explain suffering? Does it reveal a God who can exercise control over the universe? If He has that kind of power, why doesn’t He immediately put an end to misery?

Many people, the faithful and the faithless, look at calamities—whether personal, national or global—and agonize over these questions. In this lesson we will see how the Bible addresses this enigma: “Why does God allow suffering?”.

How can we have true freedom of choice and still gain freedom from suffering?

If we are clearly to understand why God allows suffering, we must squarely face another important question. How can we have true freedom of choice and still gain freedom from suffering? We desperately want both. But are both possible at the same time?

If there is any single ideal that is practically worshiped in the West, it is freedom. Freedom is the bedrock of our social system. Many would be willing to defend freedom and self-determination with their lives.

God Himself has given people freedom of choice. In fact, such is part of God’s great design. He does not force us down a particular path, but He allows us to choose the way we will go. On the subject of choice, God told ancient Israel, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Suffering child in street

Not understanding the reasons that suffering abounds, some conclude that neither God nor religion offers answers to the world's problems.

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky passionately expressed what may be the West’s prevailing view of the importance of free will. In 1864, in his Notes From the Underground, he wrote of our need for self-determination: “Man needs only his free will, no matter what it costs and where it leads.”

But what are the advantages and disadvantages of man’s free will? We need to keep in mind that freedom of choice allows for both good and evil outcomes. The cost can be enormous. Our choices can lead to disastrous consequences.

In the early 1900s, as now, people freely made choices. National leaders made fateful decisions. Pride, stubbornness, fear, strategic timetables and entangling political and military alliances all played a part in starting World War I. Once conditions were in place, the nations at war found themselves trapped in a canyon of continual, almost unending slaughter of young soldiers. We see similar patterns throughout history.

But, in all the chaos, the real question is not whether God is alive and listening to the participants, but whether they are listening to Him.

Paul succinctly describes people’s condition: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known” (Romans 3:15-17). Unfortunately, not all destruction, misery, heartache and suffering come on those who make the bad decisions. Many of the consequences of our choices fall indiscriminately on the innocent. Blameless people can and often do get hurt. All too frequently those who had nothing to do with bad choices suffer most from them.

Moses confirms this principle: “The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18). Some sins' consequences last for generations.

Mankind’s wrong choices are the cause of most of the suffering we see in the world.

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