Suffering is all around us. We see it in new parents who ask why their child has been born with a congenital disability. We find it in patients who have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness that guarantees their last weeks on earth will be filled with agony. It is in the eyes of an orphan whose parents have been taken in a freakish accident or a breadwinner who has to inform his family about their newfound financial ruin. The problem is even worse in third-world countries, where homelessness, civil war, lack of basic sanitation, access to life-saving medications, and lack of a healthy diet create needless suffering for tens of millions worldwide.
The question of evil and suffering is not new. Ancient texts include material very similar to what we find in the Bible. One ancient Babylonian composition titled Ludlu-bel-nemeqi (“I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom”) tells the story of a man who endures catastrophic suffering and loss and becomes a pariah in his community. Scholars have long noted parallels between this text and the biblical book of Job. It seems to have been popular—there are over fifty extant copies known to scholars. Perhaps this testifies to the universal problem of suffering in our world, which dates back to the dawn of human history.
One of the most famous thinkers to wrestle with the question of evil and suffering was the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC). He posed the question in a form similar to what we hear today. He reduced the problem to four basic statements:
1. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not all-powerful.
2. Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then he is not benevolent.
3. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence does evil come?
4. Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
So which is it? Which one of God’s attributes are we willing to limit, if we believe in him at all? If evil exists, can a good God also exist? Although no answer will satisfy everyone, there are some important things to consider when addressing the problem of evil and suffering.
Is There A Reason For Evil And Suffering?
Atheists commonly argue that if the God of the Bible exists, then evil cannot exist. If he is truly all-powerful and completely good, then he should erase it from existence. Because we see so much evil, pain, and suffering in the world, then we must conclude that God is either a figment of our childish imaginations, or is morally defective and therefore unworthy of our worship. Formally stated, the argument is as follows:
1. If an omnipotent, benevolent God exists, then evil does not.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, an omnipotent, benevolent God does not exist.
For most atheists, this seems like an airtight argument against the Christian notion of God. Formally stated, it is a valid argument, meaning that it is true as long as a person is willing to agree to the premises. However, this argument sneaks in a couple of presuppositions that Christians should never be willing to grant.
First is the assumption that an omnipotent, benevolent God should eliminate suffering entirely. But what do the terms “omnipotent” and “benevolent” mean? For the critic, they are theological words bandied about with little care for precise definitions. Indeed, the critics’ definitions of these terms are not based in anything biblical. This ambiguity offers them plenty of wiggle room in debates with Christians on this subject.
Second is the assumption that there are no morally sufficient reasons for God permitting evil and suffering to exist. This overlooks the fact that without them there would be virtually no opportunities for charity, kindness, and goodness. There would be little use for most instances of care and support. Camaraderie during difficulties in life, help offered in times of duress, and expressions of love in tender moments would be unnecessary and unknown. The feeling of triumph at the end of a competition would vanish. In other words, much of what makes us human would cease to exist.
To put it simply, the critic asserts that God and suffering are mutually exclusive without offering any evidence to support this claim. They throw the burden of proof onto the Christian, expecting them to provide an impossible answer to a half-baked riddle. Christians should demand that critics justify their position.
Evil And Suffering Is Often Human Fault
If we want to know the reason for why evil and suffering exist, we have no farther to look than the closest mirror. The unpleasantries of life often result from human actions. It is fascinating that the atheist demands personal autonomy but uses the problem of evil and suffering to question God’s existence. True freedom cannot exist without the possibility for its abuse. The critics cannot have it both ways.
As C.S. Lewis once noted, “Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata — of creatures that worked like machines — would hardly be worth creating.”1 Human beings must be able to exercise free will if love, concern, and generosity are to mean anything. Sadly, humanity has a long history of abusing the privilege of freedom. The Bible makes it clear in Genesis 3 that the state in which the world exists is not God’s fault, but man’s.
Some have claimed that the problem of pain and suffering is the Achilles’ heel of the Christian faith. Every human being wants to know not only why we suffer, but why it exists in God’s creation. Scripture provides a cogent, intellectually-sufficient answer that many people refuse to recognize.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.
1C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 48.