The Problem of Suffering

One of the most common objections to a loving god, going back millenia, is that of the so-called Problem of Evil. In its more philosophical form, it boils down to this:

  1. Assume God is all powerful, as classical theists believe (not counting process theology)
  2. Assume God is all loving, as virtually all Christians believe (again, possibly some exceptions from process theology)
  3. Assume that love is defined as minimizing/eliminating suffering for others for the short term as well as the long term
  4. Therefore, God either is not all powerful (wanting to eliminate suffering but can’t) or not all loving (could eliminate all suffering but doesn’t)

Normally the third would not be included as part of the assumptions, but when I start to answer you’ll see why I put it there – it is always assumed but rarely stated, and I think that is the most flawed assumption in the argument.

In the more down-to-earth version, the question usually comes in the simple form: “why does God allow suffering?” So, what would I say to this question in 2000 words or less, which is my goal for this series.

God Joins in Our Suffering

While some people are asking this question from a purely philosophical/argumentative perspective, many others are asking because they have suffered and questioned why God allowed that in particular – it is a personal question. So the first thing to do when asked the question, I think, is to comfort the person. The intellectual debate comes later. So, the most important thing to me is to point to the times that God is said to have grieved over the suffering of humanity, which is common throughout the Old Testament, and of course also to the cross where God suffered for our sakes. The Christian approach to suffering, therefore, is not like the Buddhist approach – we do not try to escape desires and the suffering that is caused by them; we rush headlong into the suffering of others, choosing to suffer with them as God does with us.

The Possible Answers

As I said above, the majority of these answers in some way or another challenge the third assumption above, that love is defined as the complete elimination of all evil right now.

The Sovereignty Answer: Suffering Now for Good Later

In Calvinist circles particularly, since God’s is the only effective will at work in the universe, this is the only possible answer: God is making you suffer now (not just allowing you to suffer) because it will make things better in the long run. Sometimes we can look back later and say that it was good in the long run, and other times we can’t. We are to simply trust that he knows what he’s doing, even in the face of such terrible things as genocides, rapes, murders, etc. For some people this can be genuinely consoling, while for others (myself included) it paints a terrible picture of a god we have no interest in worshipping. In general, I’ve found that most people who actually see merit in the Problem of Evil are doing so because of an assumption of a Calvinist framework, which is indeed a significant portion of Christian thought, but is not even a majority – most Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, and charismatic/Pentecostal Christians reject this understanding of God’s sovereignty, and less than half of Protestants do.

Critique of Calvinism aside, I do believe in the sovereignty of God – I just believe that is a sovereignty that allows for the free will of others. In any case, I still think there is some truth to this answer, and this is the general critique of the third assumption above: loving somebody is not the same as making them happy right now. Maybe that would be an all-nice God, giving us everything we want and sheltering us from harm, but not an all-loving or all-good God. For example, a mother wouldn’t let her son run across a busy road without looking because there is an ice cream truck on the other side. The child wouldn’t be happy being held back, but it would be better for him. Sure, it would be nice of the mother to let him run across so he doesn’t get upset he’s missing out on ice cream and throw a temper-tantrum. But it wouldn’t be a very loving thing to do because the mother can see a bigger picture than the child can.

So in summary, I don’t think this is the answer to all suffering, but I do think it is a valid point.

The Free Will Answer: Suffering as Humanity’s Fault

For those of us who believe there are more wills at play than just God’s, the most common answer is that God is not at fault for suffering. Usually we hear the explanation that humans are at fault in some way (we usually leave out demons in our answers, which is my next section). Either the suffering is the result of your own sin, and I’m sure we can all identify personal instances of this whether we admit it or not; or the result of somebody else’s sin, which is again easy for most of us to identify examples of; or it is the result of the fallen natural order since the first sin of Adam and Eve, which includes things like animal violence and natural disasters.

The Spiritualist Answer: Don’t Forget the Role of Demons

A lot of Christians in the Western world today don’t even believe in demons. I’ll admit that the biblical evidence could be argued either way – there are lots of references but they are in poetic texts that are hard to interpret. I’m on the side of believing in them, and largely because of this philosophical problem. I don’t think that the fallenness of humanity is enough on its own to explain evil in the world. So I believe that Satan and his demons are at work, fighting against God and his people in every way they can, and some of these ways include causing suffering and blaming it on God or on other humans even when it isn’t.

Also, I’ll make a contentious statement: we usually reject the idea of demons because we have skewed things in such a way that we see God taking on a lot of traits that were biblically traits of Satan. We tend to make God The Accuser, which is actually what Satan means in Hebrew, and proclaim God as the ultimate fan of retributive justice rather than forgiveness and restorative justice. In Calvinism they even make God directly responsible for evils in the world, even if they try to justify that it is ultimately an act of love somehow.

Conclusion

In conclusion, then, I think the Problem of Evil is missing the point. It is dependent on a modernist worldview grounded in the Greek philosophical idea of God and not so much in the Hebraic biblical worldview. When we allow room for the wills of others at work besides God, including Satan and other demons, it is suddenly a lot harder to avoid our own responsibility to heal the suffering in the world instead of adding to it. Similarly, when we abandon the idol of temporary happiness and replace it with the growth of the Kingdom of God, we see that suffering is actually a primary mode of this growth.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.