Thursday, 22 October 2009

Objections to Christianity 1 – Evil and suffering

I’m going to take common objections for why people don’t believe Christianity is true and examine them. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind by this but I hope at least to prompt some to examine their reasons and beliefs more carefully. In this post I will look at the problem of evil and suffering.

“Earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, war, evil tyrannical leaders who torture anyone who dares disagree with them, sickness and disease. How can I believe in a God who allows such suffering?” So runs a common objection to Christianity. Another version of this objection is less personal and more philosophical. It may be stated like this: “The Bible says that God is all-powerful and all-loving. Yet, God allows evil and suffering in the world therefore God cannot be all-good or he cannot be all-powerful. Either way, the God of the Bible cannot exist.”

This does seem like a compelling argument doesn’t it? It is not an easy one to answer because God doesn’t give us reasons for all pain and suffering. Nevertheless it needs to be seen that this argument relies on some hidden assumptions:
Firstly it assumes that suffering doesn’t serve a good purpose. In other words that it is pointless. But just because something appears pointless to us doesn’t make it pointless. That is a fallacy. It assumes we know everything there is to be known. Just because we cannot think of a reason doesn’t mean there isn’t one. In fact, the person making this assumption is exercising faith. Faith in themselves, for, without any plausible reason for doing so, they have assumed that if there were a grand reason for suffering that made it worthwhile they would know what it is! That’s actually quite a leap of faith!
This argument doesn’t even line up with our experience for many of us can testify of having experienced difficulties which made no sense to us at the time and yet which ultimately worked out for good. As Tim Keller argues in The Reason for God, “with time and perspective most of us can see some good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?” Some might argue that no future bliss could be worth the worst kind of unspeakable suffering, but what does the man who wants nothing to do with God know of God’s promises? As C. S. Lewis effectively argued, such an argument does not understand that even the greatest kind of suffering will be turned backwards into an even greater glory.

Secondly this argument assumes that there is a standard against which things may be judged to be wrong and unfair. But where does this standard come from? If we reject God then we are left with natural selection in which the ‘fittest’ survive and where death and violence and the triumph of the strong over the weak are perfectly natural. So we find that the atheist has no basis for assuming that people shouldn’t suffer. After all, in their worldview suffering is inevitable! Yet wasn’t this their very reason for objecting to God? How contradictory. So, the problem of suffering is just as much of a problem for the atheist. If anything, an argument against suffering and injustice is an argument for God.

Of course, these arguments may make logical sense but they are of little comfort when we ourselves are in the midst of great suffering or difficulty. If God seems distant to us then our suffering will seem far more real. But the one thing we cannot do is assume that God doesn’t care about the problem of evil and suffering. For, in Jesus Christ, God Himself came to earth and shared in our suffering. He was beaten and crucified by evil men even though he had done nothing wrong. He experienced despair, pain, rejection, loneliness, torture and imprisonment. And he did it for you and me. God who was rich in every way became poor for our sakes. He chose to identify with the poor and lowly, the abandoned and forgotten and with those who suffer. He suffered for our sins, that is, for our rejection of and rebellion against God. He did it because He loves us that much. So, sure, we don’t always know the reason for hardship and suffering in this life, but one thing we do know is that it can’t be that God doesn’t care about us. He cares enough to share in our suffering and, ultimately, to rescue us from it, if we believe in Him.

Not only does God share in our humanity and suffering, he gives us hope that it is not in vain. We may not always see in this life the good that results from having suffered but we do know that the day is coming when He shall return again and make all things new (John 14:3; Rev. 21:5). This is not just consolation (e.g. Rev. 21:3-4) for what we have suffered in this life but a glorious restoration and re-making of all things. As Dostoevsky wrote:
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

To borrow a phrase from the Lord of the Rings ”everything sad will become untrue”. What greater consolation could there be in this life?


  1. Well, by saying that 'an argument against suffering and injustice is an argument for God' that is quite true. There should be no more suffering, there shall be no more religios wars, there shall be no more disease in poor country's and there shall be no more famin or greed. But there is. Is it realy in the plan of God for young children to die of maleria? is this justified? Can there realy be any good to be found when a tyrant takes over control of a country and causes thousends of deaths of inocent people? The inocent people die, they loose their lives through evil. But by saying that this evil can be a good thing, i would ask what good came from Hitler? Now, 60 years on, there still cannot be a justifiable reason based on God unless it was God who caused it himself. And if God caused Germany to be taken over by Hitler and God justified the slaughter of Jews then this is not the all forgiving God that Christianity is based on.

    Secondly, if all that is sad will become untrue and that at the finale of the world all will be justified we as humans are prety much left to it. Left to make as much distruction and harm as we please then those who do not follow Christianity, those in jail for Rape and Murder, those how rob cars and old grandma's purses for drugs will all be forgiven and their slates wiped clean. I for some reason don't think i would wipe their slate clean as their victims would still have a loss. Are you saying that when God returns to earth that he will be so almighty and so powerfull that he would heal all of the wounds and their sins? Its comforting to believe and requires a huge leap of faith.

  2. Firstly, just to be clear, I'm definitely *not* saying that evil can be a good thing. Evil does not come from God but comes from the hearts of wicked men (who somehow, in ways we don't understad, are influenced by Satan). Rather God constantly thwarts and limits the wickedness that is in the world. Nevertheless, God is in control (else He wouldn't be God) and He does *allow* some suffering that, to us, seems very hard to understand but He always turns it for good. The story of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers but who eventually became Pharaoh's right hand man and was able to save his family from famine in Egypt is a great example of this (See Genesis 37 - 50, especially Gen. 50:20).

    Of course, for some things, such as the examples you give, it is very hard to imagine how they could serve a greater purpose that would make them 'worthwhile'. But a few things to bear in mind here are that:
    1. Every single one of us has sinned against Almighty God. Far, far more than we realise. The Bible actually describes us variously as stubborn, blind, deaf and even 'dead' in our sins. None of us actually deserve to live. That He allows any of us to live at all is a (temporary) act of His mercy.
    2. All suffering is the result of mankind's rebellion against God. We are therefore part of the problem (whether we admit or not). Therefore, for God to destroy suffering He'd have to destroy us but God is also merciful and therefore He is "patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
    3. Since we are all born unbelieving rebels aginst God and since God's promises describe things that are far too marvelous for us in our self-centred, corrupted state to understand we naturally don't appreciate the wonders of His glorious restoration that will make "all that is sad untrue".
    4. Just as we have little awareness of how sinful we are likewise we have little awareness of how pure and holy God is. God is both a God of justice and of mercy. We know this from what we know of ourselves for don't most of us, to some extent, expect to see punishment when evil is done and yet expect to receive mercy when we ourselves mess up? Double standards! You see, because God is perfectly holy He cannot allow sin into His presence, His justice *must* be done (just as we expect justice to be done - where do you honestly think you get your natural inbuilt desire for justice from???) and therefore wickedness *must* be punished. Yet, He is also merciful and wants to show mercy to us (as we ourselves know we need, whenever we are found guilty of any wrong-doing!). How can He do both at the same time?

    I've run out of space so I'll have to answer that in the next comment!

  3. The answer to the dilemma is the Gospel: He sent His son Jesus who took on our human nature and yet who perfectly obeyed God's commands on our behalf. Then evil men hated Him and killed Him even though He done no wrong. Yet God allowed this and accepted the suffering of His son as the punishment that is due to us in our place. Because of this God raised Him from the dead as the 'firstborn' of all those who will one day be resurrected through faith in Him. So in that amazing event God's justice has been satisfied and now He is free to welcome very sinner who comes to Him. However, your final question overlooks a vitally important point. The bible makes clear that only those who have repented of their sins and who no longer trust in themselves but have put their faith in Jesus will be saved. For those who refuse to believe, who, in effect, continue to shake their fist at God, or who foolishly imagine that there good deads will outwieght their bad ones, a dreadful, eternal punishment awaits. So, no, we cannot live as we please - to take God's mercy and patience as a 'licence' to sin all we like is to store up even greater wrath against ourselves. However, that is not to say our obedience earns us God's favour. Rather, think of it like this, if we refuse to believe then we go to hell for our own sins, but if we believe we are raised to everlasting life in the restored earth on account of Jesus' perfect life and undeserved death.

    Hope that helps?