Why does God allow suffering, bad things to happen?
Brian Huffling: Why does God allow suffering? This question goes back at least to Job. It was asked by ancient Greek philosophers, medieval theologians as well as atheists and believers.
This issue has been used to argue against God’s existence and it has also vexed believers. It has caused some to doubt or lose their faith. There are two ways of answering this question: academic and pastoral. The former attempts to show that God and evil can both exist while the latter tries to answer believers’ questions and doubts in times of heartache and despair.
This article will focus on the apologetic aspect of the problem while only briefly touching on the pastoral problem.
Recently there has been a surge of people, several high-profile, who have left the faith. The problem of evil is one reason that people sometimes offer for losing their faith. But why should suffering cause one to either lose faith or not have it to begin with?
The main assumption is that if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, then evil should not exist. But it does, so then no such God could exist.
The notion of God being all-good is usually taken to mean that God, like humans, has certain obligations with how He should behave and that He always behaves in the right way. But since God is not a human, He does not have human obligations. Whereas humans must attain (moral) goodness by how they act, God’s goodness is not earned or attained. He is good because He is infinite being — lacking nothing. He cannot be better or more perfect than He is.
This point can be made biblically with the story of Job (1:13-2:12). God basically dares Satan to test Job to curse God. God says He was incited against Job without cause (2:9). If a human gave permission to another human to destroy all that he had, including killing his family and eventually bringing disease on Job himself, such a person would by all accounts be seen as immoral.
In fact, Job basically accused God of just such a thing. But did God try to explain His actions or try to reason with Job? No, He simply said: “I am God and you are not.” God is simply not contained by our human obligations and we should not treat God as a human (an all-too-often mistake Christians and atheists make).
But this raises an interesting point regarding the problem of evil, especially when used to argue against (or doubt) God’s existence.
If God doesn’t have moral obligations like humans, then he has no obligation to provide a world without evil. The rejection of this assumption makes the logical (not pastoral) problem of evil collapse. It is the main assumption made, that is, if God does not act the way we think He should, then He must not exist. Of course, such thinking is irrational and based somewhat on emotion, along with bad thinking.
But this does not answer the question, “Why does God allow suffering or evil?” If we are asking what God’s reasons are or what His motivations are, then we will never know the answers in this lifetime. But we can talk about some general reasons.
One reason is that (within God’s providence and sovereignty) man chose to disobey God. Such an act (sin) introduced disease, death and destruction. It also brought about a curse on the species and the earth. However, it was not only Adam’s decision that caused evil. Our own decisions to will ourselves and our good over God (and the good in general) cause evil. (In fact, willing ourselves over God is in itself an evil.)
If we turn on the news, we will see stories about horrible acts that people commit against others. So why doesn’t God stop those things from happening?
If God stepped in every few seconds and miraculously stopped people from being evil, (it is people, not God who are evil) then it would be hard to understand the natural order since there would be so many supernatural acts every second. Miracles would be devalued and it was miracles that were used to authenticate the message of God with his prophets, apostles and Jesus.
Further, it would basically eradicate the free will of man. God wants us to have free will and make our own choices. Of course, God is providentially involved in every aspect of our lives, even our choices, but He still holds us accountable for them. So, man seems to be the cause of much evil (moral, that is), and God allows evil to happen because He gave us free will. Further, for God to miraculously intervene every second would eradicate the natural order (don’t forget, Romans 1 tells us it is the natural order that tells us about God, so it must be stable).
Evil and suffering are also ways that we are made more like Christ. Paul in Romans 5:3 explains that we rejoice in suffering because of the effects it has on our character. In fact, Jesus himself suffered to obtain our salvation. Often people do not seek God when things are going well.
But when suffering happens, people tend to look beyond themselves to God and higher meaning. In short, suffering can bring about good.
In addition, evil can also be used to show God’s existence. There can be no objective evil without some objective good. But where does such objective good come from?
A creator is needed to give humanity its objective nature and meaning. Naturalism cannot provide a notion of objective good when it comes to morality. Evil, then, is a problem for atheists because they have no grounding for good. It is also the case that only theism (belief in God) promises the ultimate defeat and containment of evil. Thus, theism actually explains evil better than atheism.
In conclusion, God is not evil for allowing suffering. He is not judged by our standards. His existence is not contradictory to evil. He has given us free will to do good or evil. Further, evil and suffering can be used to draw our attention to God and conform our character to Christ. Evil requires objective good, which only theism can explain. Finally, evil will one day be completely defeated and contained.
Brian Huffling is an associate professor of philosophy and theology and also serves as director of the Ph.D. program at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.