How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering in the world?
The problem of pain and suffering in the world does pose a challenge to belief in an all-good, all-powerful God. However, whilst the Bible doesn’t offer us any quick or easy answers, it does paint a picture of a God who is in control, who can produce good even out of terrible things, who suffers with us in the person of Jesus, and who offers hope for eternity.
Reasons to disbelieve God
John G. Stackhouse Jr on how the problem of suffering is one of the most powerful barriers to faith in God.
SIMON SMART: You say that you have quite a lot of sympathy for the atheist perspective, don’t you?
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR: Well yeah, I mean there are lots of good reasons to not believe in God. Open your morning newspaper and the reasons are there. Every day the Christian belief that God is all-good and all-powerful seems obviously not to be true. At least one of those can’t be true, because why would an all-good, all-powerful God let these people die in the ocean or let these people die in the slum or let these people die in the cancer ward? And not just die, but die horribly. So, there’s powerful reasons to disbelieve in God, every single day, in our lives as well as in our minds.close
Behind the Life of Jesus: How could God allow suffering?
John Dickson and Greg Clarke discuss why God doesn’t just end the suffering in the world.
JOHN DICKSON: Greg we’re in the Golan Heights talking about Jesus’ vision of a coming kingdom – a kingdom of peace, the end of suffering, and so on. It begs the question – why doesn’t God end the suffering?
GREG CLARKE: Yeah, and it’s the question on every thinking person’s lips, isn’t it? How could a God that is good and powerful allow a world like this one to unfold? For some people this question is so hot, they give up on God altogether; they conclude that kind of God just could not exist. I think that’s unnecessarily despairing. There are two kinds of issues in operation here: there are the logical, philosophical issues; and there are the emotional, experiential issues. On the logical, philosophical front, there isn’t really a contradiction between the statements that God is good and God is powerful and that evil and suffering exist. I mean God can have all sorts of appropriate reasons for allowing a world like this. For example, He may want human beings to deliberately seek the good, not to be just like puppets on a string. So, you can explore the philosophical questions.
JOHN DICKSON: That’s only part of it though. Surely the emotional side of this question is far more powerful.
GREG CLARKE: Yeah and that really is the heart of it, and the struggle for people. I mean, people cry out to God saying ‘God, how could you allow this place to be the way it is? How could you put up with it?’ But Christian teaching’s always been that God actually doesn’t put up with the world. He’s always wanted a loving, peaceable, pain-free world, and we’re the ones who’ve moved, we’re the ones who’ve brought evil and suffering into the world. In fact, the problem of the world is so much associated with us. And God still wants a loving, peaceable, pain-free world, in fact, that’s the very idea behind the kingdom of God and the pathway in which Jesus is taking us. Another part of the Christian teaching though, that I find incredibly helpful on this, is the idea that God has actually entered into the pain of the world, He’s entered into our suffering in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That God has actually taken on human form, that he knows what it’s like to suffer, he’s experienced what we’ve experienced and even more. And that Jesus’ coming into the world is showing God’s sympathy for our situation, and that we’re heading towards a world where these things will be resolved – not only human suffering, but the suffering of the whole creation.
JOHN DICKSON: So, we might not have all the intellectual answers, but we have a clear picture of the God we bring our questions to?
GREG CLARKE: We have a God who sympathises with the human situation and wants it to be resolved.close
Living in the gap
Natasha Moore ponders the importance of lament in the time of coronavirus.
NATASHA MOORE: I’m Natasha Moore, and I’m thinking out loud here.
So the last few days I’ve been reading a bit about lament. Lament is, among other things, a traditional religious practice – there’s loads of it in the Bible, for example – but lament isn’t something that many of us are fluent in, whether we’re religious or not. Lament is all about the gap. The gap between hope – how we think things are meant to be, up here – and reality, down here. Big gap. And we have different strategies for dealing with it. We can try to close it this way: we just work really, really hard to bring the reality closer to the line of how we think things should be. But the gap is so big. Or, we can lower our expectations: things are what they are, why expect them to be any better? We close the gap with cynicism.
Lament means standing in the gap, and fully acknowledging that it’s real, and that it sucks. If there’s a version of this happening right now, I think it might be journalists, and maybe especially photojournalists, who are doing it well for us – showing us the mass graves, the overloaded emergency departments around the world, the funerals with no touching and almost no mourners. Just pointing to the gap between the hope and the reality and saying “See. This, this is not ok.”
The beauty of lament as a Christian thing though is that it’s all about getting in God’s face about the gap; complaining to God. If God is real then he both affirms the hope line – that things aren’t meant to be like this – and he can make good our efforts to change the reality line. If he’s real, his is the face you want to get up in about the gap.
Lament is a crucial part of love in the time of coronavirus.close
Faith in a period of suffering
Sarah Irving-Stonebraker reflects on finding hope in her Christian faith during a time of immense personal suffering.
Nicholas Wolterstorff lives with unanswered questions since the death of his eldest son.
I have experienced painful loss. Our eldest son Eric was killed in a mountain climbing accident in 1983. He was doing what he loved, and that seems to me – makes his death different from, for example, a suicide, which I think is much more difficult for a parent to cope with. But the death of a child is painful to cope with in any case. So it naturally, for a religious person like myself, Christian, raises questions about where God is in this. And I am a philosopher and I’ve read the philosophical attempts to explain. I don’t find any of them compelling. So I live with unanswered questions. I continue to have faith in – that there is a Creator of this universe, and that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But how I fit that all together with the early death of a beloved son as – I live with the question, live with an unanswered question.
How do you reconcile your grief with your faith?
So the reason it’s difficult, it seems to me, is that there is in Christianity an ‘each and every’ strain – God desires that each and every human being flourish until full of years. Some of the philosophical accounts are not ‘each and every’ accounts but sort of humanity as a whole and so forth, but it’s the ‘each and every’ theme which runs throughout Christian Scripture. God wants each and every – not just the species, but each and every human being to flourish until full of years. And so when we see somebody full of years who hasn’t flourished, or somebody who’s flourishing like my son but not until he is full of years, we have to ask: how does this compute? How does this fit? And I don’t know the answer to that question.
One of the philosophical answers is that it makes the rest of us better. I don’t know if I’m better because of Eric’s death, but even if I am I would give – trade that betterness for his life anytime.
Does faith change your grief?
So my grief is not without hope. It’s – I suppose you might even say it’s contained within hope, or intertwined with hope. I hope for a new day, the day of the resurrection. So it’s not without hope. It’s not a despairing kind of grief. It’s got a different quality from somebody who says we’re nothing but molecules.
What is the place of lament in grief?
There’s not much lament in the Western world, modern Western world. We talk about getting over it, putting it behind you, getting on with things – language like that. In effect, most people try to disown grief, or encourage the other person to disown their grief, so that it’s not really part of them anymore, they don’t think about it, don’t remember, don’t mention it and so forth. I think, for me anyway, my challenge was to own my grief – not to disown it but to own it in such a way that some sort of good would come out of it, if at all possible. And lament is a natural part of that.
So to own it … owning it and lamenting come just locked together. To lament requires a different attitude towards grief, death, loss from that which is common in our culture, which is the getting over it, putting it behind you attitude. If you really do own it as opposed to disowning it and trying … if you disown it, get on with things, that sort of thing, you’re not going – lament is the last thing you’re going to do because that brings … that inherently brings it back, when you want to put it behind you.
So lament then is the recognition … is the explicit recognition that this is something to grieve over and to continue grieving over. My view is that if Eric was worth loving when alive, then he is worth grieving over when dead. But the lament also is – at the same time is a protest. The lament says – brings the memory back to life in the context of saying, this should not be. This is not something to celebrate, this should not be. So it’s got a quality of protest to it. It blends honouring with protest.
Where is God in your grief?
So at the heart of Christianity then is the recognition … is the worship of a suffering saviour, suffering Jesus Christ. And I think that – for me anyway, but I think that for lots of other people – that, as opposed to a totally impassive, transcendent God, represents in a deep sort of way a consolation. God and I are in this together as it were, co-sufferers – mysterious as that is.close
It is well with my soul
John Dickson on the life of Horatio Spafford, who wrote the famous hymn ‘It is well with my soul’.
JOHN DICKSON: Well I’m here outside the American Colony Hotel here in Jerusalem, and today it’s one of the nicest hotels in the city – it’s certainly where I’d stay if I could afford it. But its beginnings in the 1880s tell a very different, humble story – and it has a connection with one of the most famous hymns ever written.
The founder of the American colony was Horatio Spafford in 1881. He was a prominent Chicago lawyer who owned lots of property throughout Chicago, which tragically he lost in the great Chicago fire. He was a friend of D.L. Moody, the famous evangelist and revivalist; and a committed Christian. In 1873, he sent his family ahead to the UK for a vacation – he was due to join them a few weeks later – but tragically the boat they were on sank, and Anna his wife alone survived and the four kids perished. I’ve seen the photo of the telegram Anna wrote, it simply says, “Saved alone. What shall I do?” Horatio Spafford hopped on the next boat to Europe and when he was in the middle of the Atlantic the captain told him the rough point where the ship had gone down and he’d lost his children. And it was there that he penned the famous hymn ‘It is well with my soul’, which has this quite haunting refrain “It is well, it is well, with my soul”. It’s not a mantra, it’s not a denial of his pain, in fact the opening line of the hymn says, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot you have taught me to say, it is well with my soul.” He returned to America and for whatever reason decided to pack up shop and with his wife come here to Jerusalem where in 1881 he founded the colony. But its original purpose was not a plush hotel, it was a centre to serve the poor of Jerusalem; to serve Muslims, Christians, Jews, whatever. It was indiscriminate in its love. For the next seven years until his death in 1888, he just invested himself in the people of this land; he followed his Master’s love by showing love. He died in 1888, and is buried not far from here.
Apparently, Spafford’s own church in America thought that he had experienced so much pain and suffering that it must be divine retribution for his sins – which doesn’t sound very Christian to me, it sounds more like karma. Spafford saw things very differently and we catch a glimpse of it in the hymn itself. He speaks about the reality of his suffering but then he turns to the suffering of Christ who he said “shed his blood for my soul”. And he speaks over and over again about how his sin “not in part, but in whole, is nailed to his cross so I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, it is well with my soul”. His point is: whatever the philosophising you might be able to do about the incredible suffering he went through, for him the heart of the matter was that God had disclosed himself in Jesus as the God who himself suffers for us; that whatever explains the tragedy he’d gone through, the God who stands behind every event is the God who gave himself for us. And in that, he says, he finds peace. One of the verses says “thou wilt whisper thy peace to my soul”. He finds the suffering God in his suffering. And then in the last verse of the hymn which is actually not sung very often, he speaks of his future hope – he says, “The Lord haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll. The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so it is well with my soul.” In other words, “Whatever I go through now, if there’s a day coming when God will make good on his promises, when he will wipe every tear from every eye, then I can get up in the morning trusting this God because there will come a day when I can look back on this life as if waking up from a bad dream. If that’s true, if God is present in our suffering, and if he promises to make things right, it is well with my soul.”close
Phil Camden has Motor Neurone Disease – and robust hope for the future.
SIMON SMART: Phil, thanks so much for coming in.
PHIL CAMDEN: Great to be here, Simon; thank you for having me.
SIMON SMART: Now, you were diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2013 – tell us, what even led you to go to the doctor to find that awful news out?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah, well, I used to run and swim and I was finding myself getting slower – unable to swim as far or run as far, and certainly stairs were getting a lot more difficult. So, at first, I thought it was a pinched nerve so I went to a chiropractor and they worked on my skeleton, and then they couldn’t do anything. I went to a physio for three months to wore on my core, but that wasn’t working, and the physio was actually the one that said, “You need to get your GP to have a look at this.” And he sent me to a neurologist, and after some very painful tests, gave me the diagnosis.
SIMON SMART: It’s a shocking diagnosis to get – what was it like at that moment when you were told this awful news?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah, it is terrible news, because it’s such a terrible disease. They tell you that you’ve got two years to live, and they’ve got to give you a worst-case scenario, because if they said you’ve got four and you die in two you’re going to be pretty upset with them. But if they tell you two and you live for four, you’re not so upset. But 80% die within 27 months, and the process of your death is like being locked inside a body that can’t move. So, you’re mentally stimulated, you’re mentally focused, but your whole body just shuts down until no muscle in your body can move at all, and once the lungs can’t move, you suffocate and die.
SIMON SMART: What was it like as you started to try to process that news, for you but also for your family?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah, really difficult, because terminal illness comes with a lot of ramifications. I had to hand over my job – I was the pastor of a church – I handed that over. So, within three months, I’d lost every position – everything that gave me a sense of self-worth and significance as a man. I’d lost my job, ability to earn income, I was on state executive heads of churches, and all of that was gone, and I was sitting at home, alone. And my wife as well, because she worked alongside me, so when I resigned she also went through that as well. So, we had to find a new sense of purpose and self-worth, I guess.
SIMON SMART: Well you’d been a pastor for a long time, so no doubt you’ve had to counsel and care for people in pretty dire situations – what was it like to find yourself in that place?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah, it was a huge learning curve, cause you’re the one going around and encouraging people and praying with people and helping people through some of the darkest moments of their life to the point of death, praying with people before they die and counselling and sitting with families, and now you’re in that situation. And I really had to be reminded of some of the things that I’d said to others and really, do I believe what I’d said to others? Is that the truth that’s going to hold me steadfast in this moment? And I found that it was, and in terms of self-worth and significance, I had to find that again in love, and realise that what gives all of us a sense of self-worth and significance is not the car we drive, the house we live in, the titles we come under, but that somebody loves us and cares for us, and I found that in my faith.
SIMON SMART: I remember Christopher Hitchens writing about when he was diagnosed with his cancer, and he said it was like entering across a border into another country. You’ve explained it a little bit similarly, haven’t you?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah it is. When I received the letter of diagnosis and the prognosis being two years to live, I really sensed that that letter was a visa to go into the world of Motor Neurone Disease and help bring hope where there was hopelessness, light where there was darkness, and faith where there was fear, and really begin to build relationships with people I never would have met in my life unless I had been diagnosed with this. So, I guess it brought meaning and purpose back into my world as well.
SIMON SMART: You met some people and had some pretty profound experiences with people suffering from the same disease as you – tell me about one of those.
PHIL CAMDEN: There was a gentleman who had Motor Neurone Disease and we were in his lounge room, and I was sharing my faith with him and we were praying with him – little did I know two weeks later I’d be taking his funeral and sharing with his family. And yet the day after that, I get a phone call from a 30-year-old young man who has two toddler kids – two little boys and a wife – and he’s just been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. So, there are some horrific stories out there of people doing it really tough through this disease, but I think if we can encourage one another in it and help one another through day by day.
SIMON SMART: What does it mean really Phil for you to have hope in this situation which as you’ve said, has only one way that it can go?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah, well, apart from a cure, and I don’t see that coming in my lifetime. But my hope is in heaven and eternity, I believe in the reality of heaven, so that I know that all of us are terminal to a certain point, none of us have a guarantee on tomorrow, so my hope is in heaven and eternity. And yet, I still realise there has to be a hope that helps us through the reality of every day that we are here, and that hope is in me working with Cure for MND in Victoria, raising finances and money to invest into scientists, doing research to find a cure, so that if one day someone’s sitting opposite a neurologist and they’re saying “You have Motor Neurone Disease” they can also hand them a script and say “Go home, take this, you’re going to be ok.” And that might not come in my lifetime, but it will come because of what we do in our lifetime. And we have to live generationally, and we have to realise that many of the cures that we have today for different diseases are founded on the sacrifice of others who have gone in the past.
SIMON SMART: Are you afraid of what lies ahead of you?
PHIL CAMDEN: Yeah, I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t in some way apprehensive about losing all of my muscles, not being able to shower myself, to roll over in bed, to breathe easily, to eat, to never taste a strawberry again or a steak again. That day is in my future. And unless something miraculous happens, there is a day coming where I’ll eat through a tube in my stomach and I won’t be able to hug you and say I love you to my family and my friends. And so, I’m really apprehensive about that. But I know his grace is sufficient for today, so I’m not going to pay interest on what’s going to happen tomorrow or worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, because I know that in that moment I’ll have the strength and the grace that I need.
SIMON SMART: You’ve got an incredible perspective on this Phil; thanks for coming in.
PHIL CAMDEN: Thanks Simon for having me, I appreciate it.close
This Easter, let’s contemplate the meaning of hope
How the hope of Easter points to future restoration and death and evil being conquered.
The meaning of suffering
Barney Zwartz reflects on blessing, misfortune, and the “providence” of God.
How faith has guided us through our son’s loss
Barney Zwartz reflects on the role faith has played in helping him and his wife cope with their grief after the death of their son Sam.
The end of grief
CPX Associate Emma Wilkins reflects on how the Easter story speaks into our grief and says that death is not the end.
Not how it’s supposed to be
Simon Smart on the recent earthquake in Türkiye and Syria, the problem of suffering, and the vision of hope found in the Bible.
- In small groups, skim the top headlines and articles in a newspaper or online news site:
- Do the Colour, Symbol, Image Thinking Routine to summarise the overall impression you get from the headlines and articles.
- Discuss: Is the news mostly good or bad?
- Watch Reasons to disbelieve God and discuss:
- Do you agree with John G. Stackhouse Jr that the terrible things we see in our newspapers – the pain and suffering in the world – pose a huge challenge to belief in an all-good and all-powerful God?
- Is there anything in particular that you’ve seen in the news this week that challenges the belief in an all-good and all-powerful God?
- Using the 3,2,1 Bridge Thinking Routine, write down your initial responses to the topic: How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering in the world?
- 3 thoughts/ideas you have about this topic
- 2 questions you have
- 1 metaphor or analogy that you think might explain the relationship between God and suffering
Understand & Evaluate
- Watch Behind the Life of Jesus: How could God allow suffering? read the articles This Easter, let’s contemplate the meaning of hope and The meaning of suffering.
- Write a one sentence summary for each of these.
- Simon Smart talks about the different ways people try to cope with suffering and loss. Which of these do you see most often? What other ways are there of coping with suffering?
- Read this paragraph again about an atheist perspective on suffering. Does this satisfy you logically or emotionally? What might be the arguments for this kind of perspective? And, based on the CPX content, what might be some arguments against it?
- The resources suggest that in times of suffering, Christians take comfort by knowing that God is in control and working for our good, and by looking at the person of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. Why might these beliefs be helpful when going through difficult times?
- Watch Living in the gap and read The end of grief and Not how it’s supposed to be.
- What do these short columns and video add to the dilemma of how a good God could allow suffering, and how Christians might find resources in their faith to help cope with suffering.
- Write down one thing you agree with, one thing you’re not sure about, and one thing you’d like to challenge from one of these pieces.
- Watch or read two of the following personal accounts – Faith in a period of suffering, On grief, It is well with my soul, Diagnosis:Terminal, or How faith has guided us through our son’s loss.
- How did this person’s faith help them to interpret and cope with immense personal suffering?
- Imagine you have the chance to interview this person. Write three questions that you’d like to ask them to help you better understand their perspective on suffering.
- Read Matthew 26:36-46.
- How does Jesus feel in this passage? Why does he feel this way? (Think about what is happening and what is about to happen in the story.)
- What is interesting and surprising about what Jesus prays? What do we learn about him from this?
- How might this passage be helpful for someone experiencing suffering?
- Read Romans 5:1-5; Romans 8:18, 22-25, 31-39; and 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. How would you summarise the Apostle Paul’s attitude towards and beliefs about suffering from these passages?
- Read Isaiah 25:6-9 and Revelation 21:1-4. How might these passages provide further hope amid suffering?
- Choose one of these passages/verses that you think could be most helpful for someone experiencing suffering. Create an image based on this passage/verse.
- Listen to the song Take Heart, a Christian song for those who are suffering. How does this song incorporate some of the themes from this lesson?
- Write your own song, poem, or journal entry reflecting on the question of suffering and the issues and perspectives that have been raised in today’s class. Be honest about your feelings, opinions, questions, and concerns that you still have about God and suffering.
- Return to the 3,2,1 Bridge Thinking Routine you began earlier. Now that you have explored the topic further, write down:
- 3 thoughts/ideas you have now
- 2 questions you have now
- 1 metaphor or analogy that you now think explains the relationship between God and suffering
- An explanation of how your new responses connect with your initial response
- Browse some more content from the CPX online library on the topic of suffering. Choose one piece of content and prepare a five-minute presentation that summarises and reflects on the points it makes.