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God and The Problem of Pain, Evil and Suffering

One of the five talks I'll be giving at Plymouth University in February is on the subject of suffering. To help me prepare I've been digging into the way that other apologists have approached the task. I've been feeding my heart from Richard Sibbes' The Bruised Reed. For time reasons I limited myself to five approaches, three books and two mp3s....

Nicky Gumbel - Suffering (chapter 1, Searching Issues).
The Alpha Course
This is the number one objection to Christianity. Suffering is experienced globally, in our communities and individually. It's not a problem for all religions but it does arise in Christianity because Christians say God is good.
1) Human Freedom (or the free will defence), it's our sin or the sin of others that directly or indirectly causes much suffering, the rest is probably due to the fallen nature of the world.
2) God works through suffering - to draw us to Christ, to bring Christian maturity and to bring about his good purposes e.g. Joseph.
3) God more than compensates for suffering. God has all eternity to make it up to us.
4) God is involved in our suffering - the story of Joni Earekson Tada and The Long Silence.
How will we respond to the suffering in our lives. Ask if it's because of my sin? What is God saying through this? What does God want me to do in this? And then hold onto hope - suffering is an alien intrusion into God's world.
The Cross fits with all of this. Human sin put Jesus on the cross. We see God working through the suffering of the cross of Jesus. See at the cross Jesus dies for the joy ahead of him. See God come into our suffering at the cross.

Michael Ots - "Rape, child abuse and AIDS- What kind of God doesn't prevent suffering?" (chapter 3, What Kind of God?)
Michael Ots Evangelism Trust
We begin with examples of suffering which aren't just statistics they're personal to us. If we deny God's existence we don't necessarily deal with the problem - does atheism have a better answer? Should we deny God's goodness?
1) God allows suffering - a more nuanced form of 'free will' argument than Gumbel. God gives us a choice which makes our life real, unlike The Truman Show. We ask, who is to blame? Is it a manufacturing fault (no), or misuse by the owner (yes).
2) God will end the suffering - we can talk about getting rid of the bad guys but where do you draw the line? We are in danger but God is patient.
3) God has experienced suffering - not just empathy but acting to do something about it, and so suffering isn't the end of the story.

Tim Keller - How could a good God allow suffering (chapter 2, The Reason for God)
Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York
1) Evil and suffering isn't evidence against God - just because we can't see a reason why he should permit suffering doesn't mean there isn't one - e.g. Joseph.
2) Evil and suffering may be (if anything) evidence for God. God came to earth not to get himself off the hook but to put himself on it.
We should ask why Jesus suffering seems to be worse than other people's? Jesus is introduced as the one who was always in the bosom of the Father but at the end of his life he is cut off. We see God with us in our suffering at the cross, and the resurrection promises consolation and restoration. Sam Gamgee - "is everything sad going to come untrue?", Dostoevsky "suffering will be healed and made up for", Lewis: "heaven...will work backwards and turn even that agony into glory".

William Lane Craig - Cambridge Lecture in The Reasonable Faith Tour.
MP3 from
It's a big step to abandon God over any objection. The issue is two-fold, partly intellectual and philosophical, partly personal and pastoral.
1) The Logical Problem. We can't see how a good God would permit suffering but the objection exposes our own hidden premises about God.
2) The Probablistic Problem. It just seems unlikely that God would allow suffering.
a) But we're not in a good position to judge things - think about the butterfly effect or the film Sliding Doors, who can tell what's good in the long run?
b) Christian doctrine makes it more probable that you can have God and evil in the world. i) Life isn't for our happiness but for knowing God. ii) Our rebellion makes us more culpable and we're given over to our evil. iii) Knowledge of God spills over to eternal life. iv) Knowledg eof God is good, incomparably better than suffering.
3) There are other reasons to believe in God even if suffering is a hard one to swallow.
We end with a brief 'pastoral' response that expounds the Trinity and the cross as the explanation of how God is not the problem to be got rid of, but the solution to the problem.

Andrew Wilson - Why does God allow suffering or evil?
MP3 from Grace Church, Chichester
Evil and suffering feels wrong - if the atheists are right we shouldn't blink. We want God to stop people from doing evil. Genesis 3 - a story about a piece of fruit? Not eating isn't the first command (that's have sex and go travelling) to people God makes in his image. And the issue isn't the fruit, it's not a petty rule like not walking on the grass.
1) We ran off with another woman - sin is an affair, a breaking not of legal restriction but relational.
2) We threw off the safety of that relationship - nakedness becomes a problem. We end up having to compare and climb and this causes a lot of suffering.
3) We wrecked it by trying to be God - we abdicated responsibility and everything has gone wrong. "What just happened?!" - it wasn't always like this, it's not meant to be, and one day it wont be. We said "I did it my way" and it ruins things.  Until the image of God is restored it's ruined. God comes to us to do that - to overcome physical and spiritual death and make the affair right, securing us from nakedness to be sons of God.

1. I found Gumbel and Wilson very helpful on how out of place suffering is - that it feels so wrong is a positive things. It is alien, and it makes us cry out "what just happened?". The Dawkins "pitiless indifference" answer is unsatisfying.
2. Wilson's was the only one doing an exposition of the Bible and this was helpful - by contrast Craig was almost all philosophy which was also good and in a lecture setting probably appropriate. The other three had similar approaches from present problems through some points and ending with the cross & resurrection which are vital to understand suffering, consolation and restoration.
3. The logical problem comes from who we think God is - when we begin with attributes it is difficult to resolve because we attach so many assumptions to saying "God is good" and almost rule God out by definition. If we speak of the Triune God and what he is like then it's probably easier, and more obvious to speak of God coming into our suffering.
4. Given I'll have 15 minutes plus Q&A I'm really going to have to select what to say carefully. Michael Ots chapters are based on such talks so give me a good idea of what's possible. I'm also aware that in person I want to approach the topic at least as much pastorally as intellectually.

In case you were tempted to think the issue isn't one people are asking about... BBC publishes philosopher David Bain's thoughts... "But, as for those who believe in an all-good, all-powerful agent-God, we've seen that they face a question that remains pressing after all these centuries, and which is now horribly underscored by the horrors in Haiti. If a deity exists, why didn't he prevent this?"


  1. It may well be inappropriate (it's not particularly pastoral) but once or twice I've occasionally tried to argue that the person who is asking for God to end suffering is in fact asking God to end them, if they have ever in any way been a cause of suffering. To imagine a world without suffering would necessarily (within our current frame of reference) be a world without them.

    In the Cross, God demonstrates his love and begins the project to end sin and suffering without bringing a final end to people - bring them through suffering to glory by resurrection.

    Maybe that takes you down the line of could God have made a world without suffering but then you're into imagining other possible worlds which I think Lewis deals with, if memory serves.

  2. I particularly like C.S Lewis and the Problem of Pain. The crux of the matter is mostly down to who you think God is, like you say. Ignoring your heart changes nothing though, tantrums may have worked with your parents as a child but with God it will get you nowhere.

  3. Just come across this...

    Suffering is no fun, as Paul knew. Why, then,
    should we rejoice in it (Rom 5)? We do so only when the sufferings come to us as gift. And we are only able to receive them as such when we hope. Christian hope puts a spin on our suffering, but it is a different spin than that for which it is commonly mistaken, namely the spin of explanation. Hope does not explain to us why we suffer; indeed, precisely because we hope, we recognize that our suffering lies beyond present explanation. Instead, hope places us squarely in a narrative in which our suffering can be endured and accordingly made part of our life. As we enter this narrative we are given the grace to see our suffering as leading somewhere; as a part of a journey that stretches before us toward a destination that includes sharing in the glory of God. Put abstractly this destination sounds fanciful. But Paul does not mean it abstractly. Our sufferings are not so much something that will someday (in the great beyond) bear fruit. Rather they are a form of our participation in Christ.

    Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, "On Developing Hopeful Virtues" in Christians Among the Virtues.

  4. Please can I throw in a few ideas?

    Don't think of yourself speaking to theologians, but instead imagine a sceptical, hurting person. Cut out, or explain all the language like 'for God's glory' etc.

    1. Deal with the philosophical objection - the logical and the probabilistic one
    2. Use the moral rejoinder (suffering indicates something is wrong, it is not as it should be)
    3. Be clear, we do not have an explanation, but we do have a solution
    4. Challenge people to care about the matter, and so to consider embracing Christian belief, in order to be part of the solution
    5. One of the the heaviest emotional burdens of suffering is isolation and alienation. Jesus is uniquely able to deal with this
    6. The church community is a part of the answer, as is medical treatment, as is prayer...

  5. Tom - that's the sort of direction I'm taking. I think you have to assume you're talking to hurting people even if you're not. And you're right about the church as part of the answer, so helpful.

  6. I agree totally that you have to assume that you're talking to hurting people and hurting people with real questions formed through their experiences. A talk like this has to do the very difficult thing of mourning with those who are whilst taking serious the honest and raw questions that are being asked by others.

    In my limited experience some people do sometimes come at the question from an emotionally unengaged and personally uninvolved position and I think this requires a different kind of approach again.

    Hope all your preparation goes well Dave and that you experience the Holy Spirit as your Paraclete, even now.

  7. The question pain, suffering and evil only exists within it's religious context because these burdens of the human condition remain incompatible with the very idea of a loving and benevolent God and the purpose of the incarnation, according to traditional teaching. And of course this failure of religion to deliver on God's promise is why many, like myself have concluded that existing religion has nothing to do with God and is just a theological counterfeit.

  8. klatu,
    That's a fascinating reply. Can you say a little more about what solution/explanation you have moved towards? And perhaps how that solution addresses the human and physical elements of the problem?
    I used to be more enthusiastic towards the Buddhist answer, but I've been unable to resolve some questions that I have about the counter-intuitive moral/perception problem.

  9. helpful overview Dave.
    You might want also to check out (if you have time) some of the contributions from Chris Wright in his fascinating THE GOD I DON'T UNDERSTAND (Zondervan, 2008)

  10. Yes. I agree with Mark. Chris Wright's new book is very good. I highly recommend it.

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