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
Jesus and the problem of evil
John G. Stackhouse Jr on how when faced with evil, we should run to Jesus.
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR: When I was looking at the problem of evil as my second research program as a younger professor, I found that most of the literature on the subject, even from Christians, was about God and evil – this general, Western, Abrahamic God and the problem of evil. And you can sort of sort out those things to a certain place and with whatever amount of satisfaction you find those arguments to bring you, but I didn’t find it personally very helpful looking at the latest disaster in the news or the latest disappointment in my own life, to then pull out those arguments again and reassure myself that God’s really good, and God’s really got things under control. And I found that Martin Luther, in the 16th century, had powerful advice for us. He said, “Look, God isn’t fully explicable, God’s ways are sometimes quite frightening, and you have to run away from that God and run to Christ.” Which sounds like heresy, it sounds like there’s two Gods – pick the one you like. But orthodox Christianity – and Luther was an orthodox traditional Christian – says that in fact they’re the same God. They look really different: here’s this frowning, thundering, mysterious God; here’s this sweet, kind, gentle Jesus. But if you actually look at Jesus carefully in the gospels, and you see him in the context of the whole Bible, you can be reassured that this kind God is the same God who’s running the world in this mysterious way. And that, to me, that’s huge, that’s really the secret of life.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
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
- In small groups, skim read some headlines and articles in a newspaper or online news site, and discuss the overall impression you get from the tone of the articles. 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 you’ve seen in the news this week that challenges the belief in an all-good and all-powerful God?
Understand & Evaluate
- Watch Behind the Life of Jesus: How could God allow suffering? and Jesus and the problem of evil and read the two articles. In groups, creatively summarise (on paper or PowerPoint) the main points of the videos and articles, and answer these questions:
- Simon Smart talks about the different ways people try to cope with suffering and loss. Which of these do you see most commonly? What other ways are there of coping with suffering?
- The resources suggest that in times of suffering, Christians take comfort by looking at the person of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. Why might that perspective be helpful when going through difficult times?
- In groups, watch either It is well with my soul or Diagnosis: Terminal and discuss how Horatio Spafford’s or Phil Camden’s faith helped them to interpret and cope with immense personal suffering.
- Read the paragraphs below about an atheist perspective on suffering, and discuss the questions: Do these satisfy you logically or emotionally? What are some arguments for and against these perspectives?
- “Jane Caro, my co-author of the book For God’s Sake, wrote of almost losing her baby daughter to a virus. A counsellor told her, ‘Terrible things can happen … they can happen to anyone. There’s nothing special about you and nothing special about [your daughter]. Danger is reality, safety is illusion.’ She writes that for her, coming to accept that ‘we are all children of an indifferent (but not malevolent) universe’, was a crucial step in shredding her anxiety about the world.” – Simon Smart, The Guardian, Friday 18 April 2014
- “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and we won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows, nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” – Richard Dawkins, The Telegraph, Wednesday 10 May 1995
- In his article, Barney Zwartz talks about how God is in control of suffering, and works everything for the good of his followers. He says, “the teaching that no suffering is by accident, and that it will all eventually be redeemed, brings me great comfort.” How do you feel about that idea? Do you find it more or less comforting than the atheist perspective?
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 to us when we experience suffering?
- Write a personal journal entry reflecting on the question of suffering and the issues and perspectives that have been raised in today’s class. Which (if any) of the points made in these resources most resonates with you? What concerns do you still have about God and suffering? Be honest about your feelings, opinions and questions.