Suffering is the thing that people find most difficult about faith, and is a common reason given for not believing in the existence of God. Stephen Fry went further than this when he answered a question about what he would say if he was confronted by God at the pearly gates of heaven. He replied:
“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.” 1
We might prefer to have a God of whom we could rationally explain the actions of, but the God that we require to deliver us from suffering needs to be one bigger than our own concepts of what he might be.
Stephen Fry is a respected television personality, recognised for his intelligence and public role of presenting the results of academic investigations. Because we are used to hearing him speak authoritatively on various academic matters, it is easy for us to carry on thinking that he is speaking authoritatively on something like this. Perhaps more worrying for some Christians is that he voices doubts that they have, giving rise to further worries about the strength of their convictions on matters of faith and righteousness.
For this to be an issue at all, we have to first assume that God exists, because if he does not exist then all suffering is just a sad fact of life that cannot be changed. And if God were somehow absent or uncaring, then for all that we could be frustrated at him or blame him for allowing suffering, the existence of suffering would not be a logical problem. Therefore it is only the presence of a powerful, caring God that clashes with the existence of suffering. This is known as the ‘problem of evil’.
A defence to the problem of evil is an argument that attempts to explain why this clash between the kindness and power of God and the existence of evil is not a contradiction. There are several such arguments put forwards by Christian thinkers, including those that limit his kindness – even his love – to not compelling him to act against every case of suffering, and those that limit his power to that which intervenes, but not so far as to disregard human will. But both proponents of, and defenders against the problem of evil are equally capable of accusing the other’s arguments of being ‘just convenient’.
To a defendant, the definition of God’s kindness as being something that requires him to prevent every evil is just a convenient way of contradicting his existence in the light of human suffering. To the advocates of the problem of evil, any dilution of these definitions is just a convenient way of allowing God to exist alongside human suffering.
To prevent an endless cycle of logical definitions based on a desired outcome to the problem of evil, there is the idea of a theodicy: an explanation of why God permits evil, even though he could prevent it.2
There are a number of such common explanations, which may provide comfort to Christians who are experiencing suffering by allowing them an intellectual framework to come to terms with what they are going through. These include ‘free will’ arguments (which explain the sufferings that humans can inflict on one another based on their own moral choices, but not the likes of natural disasters) and ‘growth’ arguments (which point out the way in which suffering can help us to grow as Christians and bring us closer to God, but don’t explain why it must be suffering that achieves this).
Sadly, none of these kinds of explanation fully satisfy our questions about why we may be suffering – they just can’t cope with the number of different forms and circumstances of suffering we might experience. Therefore, we’ll have to look beyond the moment of suffering to find answers that can satisfy.
One famous analogy is made by C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan the Lion is God in this allegory, and when Lucy asks if a dangerous creature like a lion can be safe, Mr. Beaver replies: “He isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”3 Thus C.S. Lewis explains that, while Lucy might feel more safe around a more tame animal, she will need a powerful creature – this lion she cannot control nor understand – to save her and the Narnians from the trouble that they are in. However, she is given the reassurance that when Aslan acts he does so with the best interests of the Narnians at heart. In the same way, we might prefer to have a God of whom we could rationally explain the actions of, but the God that we require to deliver us from suffering needs to be one bigger than our own concepts of what he might be.
There are also long periods of time in the stories when Aslan the Lion does not act, and in those periods Narnia is invaded and ruled over by foreign powers. The reasons why Aslan would be absent like this are not always fully explained, and that reflects the Bible’s expectations of God. This way of thinking leaves the answer to the problem of evil as a mystery that we cannot know. But in the final book in the Chronicles series, when Narnia faces the darkest period in its history, Aslan makes a definitive intervention to end the evil and suffering seen by all those who have visited Narnia, and bring them into a better land. We’ll see that this also mirrors the Biblical perspective on suffering.
The absence of any definitive explanation of human suffering in the Bible is perhaps surprising. But it’s not that the question didn’t exist in the minds of its writers, but more that it was resolved with ideas of ‘hope’ rather than in changed circumstances or a specific logical rebuttal.
The absence of any definitive explanation of human suffering in the Bible is perhaps surprising. But it’s not that the question didn’t exist in the minds of its writers, but more that it was resolved with ideas of ‘hope’ rather than in changed circumstances or a specific logical rebuttal. This hope is of God’s justice, where God will settle the scores of life in his final judgements. To those who had riches and power in life, and used them selfishly, a great price will be demanded. To those who suffered at their hands, a life better than even those abusers managed is offered.4
In the Old Testament particularly, the expectation seemed to be that this justice would be worked out in the lifetime of the individual, with events such as Noah’s flood being a condemnation of wicked people and a salvation for the righteous that judged the living all at one time. Over the course of the Biblical narrative this expectation of justice is clarified to be expected after a person’s life, since until death God offers a common provision to those who are his enemies and to his faithful5, and so his judgment is made in accordance to the person’s actions within the circumstances in which they lived.
These ideas are particularly important for those who have put their faith in Christ. To have done so, first a person must have repented of their own sin – the suffering that they have inflicted on others and upon God. After recognising their guilt in this way, they come to Christ for forgiveness and for salvation from the judgement that would be due to them based on that sin. And when they do this, their sin is considered as having been placed on Christ at the cross so that he bore the judgement of that inflicted suffering that would otherwise have come upon the person.
But that does not mean that Christians can therefore act without consequence or punishment after they have put that faith in Christ, as they will still be evaluated and be held accountable for how they have used the opportunity that is the new life that they have been given. That evaluation, however, is independent of the judgement of their eternal status.6 Therefore, with the eternal life that they have been given in Christ, they will assuredly enter into the future way of things, where God promises that ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’7 With this in mind, the Christian endures suffering with the expectation that the things that they suffer in this life will be repaid to them when their life of service is evaluated, and will be enjoyed for eternity with Christ Jesus.