Like anybody else, I’m no stranger to difficulties and injustice in my life or the lives of those around me. But I also believe in a God who is maximally-powerful and maximally-good. So then why has God allowed me, and other people, to experience tragedy or suffering?
The problem with answering this question is that it requires two things. We have to address the reasons why God might allow bad things to happen without him being responsible for it, and that is mostly a matter of cold hard reason. But then we also have to accept the reality that God may allow us to suffer and He is not to blame for it.
As an illustration of what it means to understand why God is not to blame for our suffering and accepting it, think back to your childhood and all the times your parents withheld something that you wanted or some privilege from you. If you’re like I was, it didn’t much matter if they had good reasons or not. I would have thrown a fit and refused to acknowledge the goodness of my parent’s decision out of an emotional reaction rather than a reasoned treatise on why my parent’s withholding of a Happy Meal was contrary to my human flourishing.
Children can know that their parents know what’s best for them even when they do not understand why. But without deferring to and recognizing the superior goodness of their parents’ knowledge and submitting to it, children will resent their parents’ judgment. Therefore, there has to be both a knowledge of the parents’ superior will as well as a willingness to accept it even when it is contrary to what the child desires.
Similarly, we cannot ever get past the problem of evil (the question of why God lets bad things happen) unless we believe that God is good, that He knows unfathomably more than we could ever understand, and that we may not always understand why He does what He does or allows what He allows, and we also need emotional readiness to accept such a proposition when it comes at our own expense.
The emotional readiness part is often the difficult one to come to terms with. How do you look at a child who spent her life in prostitution rings and say that you don’t know why God allowed her to go through that but that He loves her anyways? How do you look at a person who just lost the person they loved more than anything else to cancer and say that God loves them even though He allowed such a tragedy? God could have stopped both tragedies, and yet He didn’t. So shouldn’t He be to blame?
If any human turned a blind eye to a child being forced into prostitution when they had the power to stop it, we would rightly condemn such a human being. The same goes for a doctor who could have saved a loved one from cancer but simply chose not to. So it seems like a double standard when we don’t blame God who has the power to stop all evil and suffering.
But this is where the cold hard reason comes into play. We must ask two questions.
Question #1: What Would Happen if God Stopped All Evil?
What would happen if God stopped all evil? The desirable consequence is obviously that nobody would suffer from it. The unintended consequence would be that we would no-longer be able to do anything but that which is good.
If we could never do anything wrong, then how different would our lives look?
If you’re like me, your life would look drastically different. If God had made it impossible for me to do evil things which inflict suffering on other people in any way, shape, form, or degree then hardly more than a minuscule fraction of my past decisions would remain unchanged (if even that).
So when we ask why God doesn’t stop evil from being done to anybody, we are really asking why God doesn’t keep anybody from every doing anything evil. The troubling reality is that includes us as well. No matter how nice we think we are, we are all guilty of cruelty. Anybody who says they are not is a liar or a lunatic.
So then why didn’t God just make us programmed to never do anything wrong in order to prevent suffering? The simple answer is that then we wouldn’t be human. We wouldn’t be agents capable of choosing to love God and live in accordance with that which is morally good according to our nature. God making us programmed to do nothing but love Him (our highest moral good) would be as artificial as a man programming a robot to be his girlfriend.
Perhaps you are still wondering why God doesn’t just help people in exceptional cases of suffering. I believe He sometimes does. But there is no hard and fast threshold of suffering at which God intervenes when that threshold is met. For reasons unknown to us, God does not always intervene and we can only trust that this is in accordance with His greater plan for the ultimate good which we cannot possibly comprehend.
Even if there is no greater reason or meaning for an instance of suffering, we must come to terms with the reality that God is not morally obligated to prevent any suffering.
Question #2: Why Do We Think God is Obligated to Prevent or Alleviate Human Suffering?
If a human allows the suffering of another human when they are in a position to prevent it, we hold them accountable. So it seems reasonable that we should hold God to the same standard because He is in a position to prevent all suffering. But God is not like humans. The all-sovereign creator of all things has the authority to give and take all things. We as finite creatures do not have the moral right to give or take the life or happiness of another human.
This may seem like a difficult reality to swallow, but God has the right to our very existence and happiness in the same way that a parent has the right to their child’s favorite toy. God may take our life or happiness just as rightfully as a parent may take the child’s toy. And just as a child when their toy is taken by their parent, we may very well not like, appreciate, or understand why God takes our life or happiness (or allows it to be taken). But that does not diminish God’s moral right to do so.
Just as a parent is not obligated to buy their child a toy, God is not obligated to give us happiness or life — especially if we don’t deserve it. We would think it odd for a parent to lavish their child with toys when that child repeatedly disobeys them and breaks the toys themselves. Yet we expect God to lavish us with blessings even though we in our wickedness disobey and dishonor Him and actively ruin the blessings that have been given to us and other people.
Just as a child must come to understand why their parents are not obligated to indulge the child’s desires, we must come to understand that God is not obligated to indulge ours. In stark contrast to the relationship between parent and child, God is not even obligated to provide anything for us. He is not merely another human being in a position of authority over us who is subject to the same moral status. He is the morally justified giver and taker of all things. He is also the just and rightful arbitrator over our cruelty to one another.
The cold hard reality is that God is not obligated to give us life or happiness let alone preserve it from the wickedness of other men or the blind cruelty of nature. As agents guilty of cruelty and wickedness ourselves, it is odd that we would even feel entitled to such a thing from a God who is nothing but goodness and requires the same of us. As cruel and wicked agents, we are entitled to nothing more than the consequences of our own cruelty and wickedness.
The reality is that we find ourselves irreconcilably isolated from our creator who is the source of all goodness.
Why Our Situation is Not Hopeless
Only when we come to understand the true peril and hopelessness of our situation before God do we catch a glimpse of the unfathomable grace which He extends to us by having anything to do with us. We habitually transgress against Him, yet He hears our prayers even though He does not always answer them in the way we want. We deserve eternal torment and yet He offers eternal life.
As the just arbitrator over all of creation He cannot simply turn a blind eye to our wrongdoing to pull us up from this world which is a consequence of our own wickedness. Rather, He crossed the uncrossable distance between us and Him for the sole purpose of becoming the victim of our cruelty and wickedness so that He may act as a substitute for the consequences of the very kind of cruelty and wickedness we inflicted upon Him.
This is a gift to mankind of incomprehensible mercy and grace. It is inconceivable yet real. All God asks in order to receive this gift is that we look on Him as the rightful giver and taker of all things, worship Him, submit to Him, and trust that He will give us salvation through His own sacrifice.
Finally, God did not simply leave us alone in our experience of suffering in the world. Christianity claims the only God who chose to suffer alongside humanity. He chose to experience the natural consequences of our wickedness against Him and each other. Therefore, even in our suffering on earth, we can rest in both the assurance of eternal salvation as well as the knowledge that we serve a God who loves us so much that He chose to suffer with us.
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