Common Objections to Christianity

How Can a Loving God Allow so much Suffering?

Teaching t07089


Reiterate two goals of this series. This objection is one of the most common . . . 

Some are disturbed philosophically by this question (omnipotence and goodness). Others are hurting emotionally and spiritually because of deep personal suffering (EXAMPLES). Still others are troubled by neither at this point, but probably will be in the future.

Christianity doesn’t give us all the answers to this question. But I think it provides the best framework for thinking about suffering, and the most personal help for those who are suffering. I want to sketch out the framework, and I’ve asked two friends to share their experience of how God has helped them through terrible suffering.

The biblical framework

The Bible doesn’t provide an exhaustive or systematic treatment of this issue, but it does devote a tremendous amount of material to it, which we can distill into a general framework.

The first point is that God is not the ultimate author of suffering; freely choosing creatures are. Suppose you buy a computer but refuse to read the manual and start changing parts. When it malfunctions, you blame the manufacturer. What does he say? “It left our factory in good working order. We provided you with instructions for its use. You didn’t follow the instructions so we are not liable for its malfunction.”

God created humans with the power to choose, and he has provided us with instructions on how to use this power and warnings that misuse will result in “death.” If we misuse it, suffering is unleashed in ways we may never have envisioned—but that is our fault, not God’s. Free will is an awesome privilege, and it is significant precisely because it produces real consequences, for good or for bad, both for ourselves and for others and the world around us (RIPPLES IN A POND). There is no way you can conceive of genuinely free will without this possibility. “Why didn’t God create us with free will, but make sure we used it properly?” is a nonsense statement. The Bible speaks of most suffering as the result of wrong choices in two different ways:

Most (probably over 75%) evil and suffering can be explained as the direct result of wrong choices.

If I make the foolish choice to drink too much at a party, and then couple that foolish choice with another foolish choice to drive myself home, I may run into another car and seriously injure or kill the people in the other car and myself.

If a terrorist group gets a Russian nuclear warhead and detonates it, this choice will result in death and injury for thousands, maybe millions of people.

The suffering caused by neglect (CHILDREN), errors in judgment (BRIDGE COLLAPSES; AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS), poor health habits (HEART DISEASE; LUNG CANCER), greed (POVERTY; FAMINE; WAR), cruelty (CHILD MOLESTER), and hatred (HOMICIDES; BOSNIA) account for an enormous amount of the suffering in this world.

But what about natural disasters (EARTHQUAKES; FLOODS; HURRICANES; TORNADOS)? The biblical position is that these things are not "ACTS OF GOD," but that they occur because we live in an abnormal world, a world made abnormal because of the first humans' choice to revolt against God. This is what says about many diseases (AIDS; BRAIN TUMOR), and genetic defects (PHYSICAL; MENTAL RETARDATION; MENTAL ILLNESS). In other words, they are the indirect result of wrong choices.

Certainly we can understand this concept because we experience it every day. Our lives are to a great extent affected by decisions made by others, often living long ago (LIVING IN AMERICA; SURVIVING A WAR; INHERITANCE). In the same way, we can see how people can make choices that will affect the lives of others in the distant future (NUCLEAR TERRORIST >> "FALLOUT": ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS & GENETIC DEFORMITIES GENERATIONS LATER). This is a necessary feature of living in a real world with free will.

The Bible says the first humans "pushed a button" with far greater consequences when they chose to revolt from God's loving rulership and run things on their own. Humanity's dominion over nature was contingent to their submission to God's loving rulership. When they revolted against God's rulership, humanity lost its dominion over nature so that now nature operates in an abnormal and hostile manner, not only expressed through disease and disaster and genetic defects, but ultimately in death (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:20,21).

But this doesn't get God entirely "off the hook." While God is not the ultimate author of suffering, God allows evil and suffering into his world for his own good reasons. Troublesome questions linger:

“Since God foreknew that creating free-will creatures would result in evil and suffering, why did he create them?”

The Bible assumes that a universe with free will creatures and evil and suffering is better than a universe without free creatures and no evil/suffering. Most of the time we agree with this. We are glad we can make choices and have relationships, even with all of the problems that come with it.

“Since God has the power to end all evil and suffering, why doesn’t he do so?”

The Bible says that he will do so when Christ returns (read Rev. 21:3,4). There are hundreds of passages that promise that God will one day call to account all who have rebelled against him and end all suffering for those who willingly acknowledge their need for his forgiveness and submit to his rulership. Perfect justice will be done! Therefore, for the Christian suffering is limited, and knowing this brings great hope (LABOR PAINS >> Rom. 8:18).

Why does God delay so long? So that as many as possible may come to him (2 Pet. 3:9). If God judged all evil at 12:00 midnight, where would you be at 12:01am? Evil isn’t just “out there”—it’s also “in here.”

“Since God can and sometimes does intervene to deliver us from suffering, why doesn’t he do this more often?” (LAKE ERIE BOATING ACCIDENT: PERPETRATOR RESCUED; VICTIM KILLED) This is probably the most personally agonizing question for us.

God takes responsibility for this, but he usually does not answer this question specifically. To Job's demand that he explain why he is suffering so horribly, God agreed with him that he was not being punished for some sin he had committed, but he refused to give Job a specific answer. Instead, he reminded him that if he is great and wise enough to create the world and maintain it, he is certainly great and wise enough to be trusted that he knows what he is doing with Job's life. This was enough for Job, and it can be enough for us if we really understand and personally know the God of the Bible. We cannot always understand why, but we can understand why we trust the One who knows why.

Other world-views do not have an answer to this problem.

You may say, "I just don't accept this explanation." Very well, reject it. But realize that to reject biblical theism because of this issue does not solve your problem. You still live in a world filled with evil and suffering, and your options are actually quite few.

Evil and suffering are real, but God doesn't exist (ATHEISM)

Our problem is that we insist on justice in a meaningless and unjust universe. “The certainty of the existence of a God who would give meaning to life has a far greater attraction than the knowledge that without him one could do evil without being punished. The choice between these alternatives would not be difficult. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness begins . . .” [1]

Therefore, atheism at best provides no satisfactory answer for evil and suffering, and at worst it justifies additional evil and suffering. It is no coincidence that the century of atheism's dominance is also a century of unprecedented evil and suffering.

HITLER: “I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality . . . we will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence—imperious, relentless and cruel.” [2]

God exists, but evil and suffering don't exist (PANTHEISM; CHRISTIAN SCIENCE). Since ultimate reality is oneness, all distinctions—including the distinctions between good and evil, and cruelty and non-cruelty—are ultimately illusory.

Vedanta Hinduism: “The illusion of evil is like thinking a coiled rope is a snake until one is enlightened to see that it is really only a rope.”

Zen Buddhism: “If you want to get the plain truth, be not concerned with right and wrong. The conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind.” [3]

This is why hospitals, social reforms, etc. did not arise in pantheistic cultures. This view leads to fatalism and withdrawal, not to fighting evil and relieving suffering. Only the biblical world-view provides a basis for doing this.

The God of the Bible provides personal help for those who suffer.

Ultimately the Bible is more concerned with giving us practical help in responding to evil and suffering than it is with giving us a full explanation of it. If you demand from God a full explanation of suffering before you are willing to trust him, you will be disappointed. But if you are willing to turn to him in humility and trust, and acknowledge your need for his forgiveness through Jesus Christ, you will find him drawing near to you to help you when you suffer.

God can personally understand your suffering because he has experienced it. One of the most painful things about suffering is when we think no one else understands what we are going through. It is easy to conclude that God doesn't understand what we're going through, and thus to become alienated from him. But by becoming a human, God in Christ has experienced every kind of suffering we ever will or could (Heb. 4:15,16). He even understands what it feels like to be abandoned by God, something that we need never experience. Christianity is the only world religion that can make this claim, because only the Christian God has holes in his hands. Knowing this makes it much easier to approach God in the midst of suffering.

God can give you love, strength, hope and peace in the midst of suffering (2 Cor. 1:3-6). While God reserves the right to express this in the timing and in the way he deems best, we can be confident that as we draw near to him during suffering he will be “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). This is by definition a personal experience, but we have the testimony of many, many people who have experienced suffering far worse than most of us, that God can and does do this. For the Christian, this is a tremendous help.

God is able to work through this suffering for your good (Rom. 8:28). Notice I did not say that God makes suffering and evil become good; that is irrational and unbiblical. Rather, he is so wise and powerful and loving that he is able to work even through evil and suffering for good.

The supreme example of this is the cross of Christ, in which God worked through the most terrible evil ever committed by humans to bring about the greatest good ever offered to humans.

The truth is that most people come to Christ because their suffering reveals their inadequacy to deal with life on their own. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, . . . but shouts to us in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [4]

Once we come to Christ, God works through suffering to strengthen our faith in him, teach us important lessons, and to refine our characters, and thereby make us more effective in fulfilling his purpose for our lives. Sometimes we don’t see this purpose for a long time.


[1] Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"; in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Penguin, 1968), p. 416.

[2] In the Auschwitz museum, cited in Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1990), p59.

[3] Zen master Yun-Men, quoted in Alan Watts, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen (San Francisco: City Lights, 1959), p. 10.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Fontana, 1974), p. 8.