‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’
That’s Shakespeare’s way of saying, ‘It never rains but it pours.’ It certainly feels that way this year, doesn’t it? First, we had the bushfires. Now, we’ve got the coronavirus. Once this is over, it makes you dread what will happen next this year! In one of his reports on the virus, ABC journalist Andrew Probyn called 2020, ‘The year God forgot.’ Is he right?
In one of his reports on the virus, ABC journalist Andrew Probyn called 2020, ‘The year God forgot.’ Is he right?
To put it another way: Does God care about suffering? Will he do anything about it? Is God there? Does the existence of suffering mean he can’t be there? What are we to think about God, suffering, and the coronavirus?
Of course, even if the coronavirus hadn’t come, we’d still have these questions. Suffering has always been here. The coronavirus has just brought it into sharper relief. So: how can an all-powerful, all-good God let suffering happen in the world?
That’s what this article is going to try and start answering, both for our own help, but also to help us answer our non-Christian friends’ questions. Obviously, it’s not going to answer every question. I don’t have the answers! And the Bible itself doesn’t try to answer every question. But it does offer some answers, and it does offer real hope. So let’s dive in.
Would an all-powerful, all-good God let us suffer?
Let’s start by asking the classic question: would an all-powerful, all-good God let us suffer?
That question is technically known as ‘the problem of evil’ and it’s been around for a long time. Here’s it’s standard expression:
- If God is all powerful, he’d be able to stop suffering.
- If God is all-good, he’d want to stop suffering.
- Suffering exists.
- Therefore, God must either not be all-powerful, or all-good, or both.
That is, it’s an argument against the existence of God—or at least God as we normally think of him, as both all-powerful and all-good—on the basis of the existence of suffering. What does the Bible say about this?
Well, it does say God is all-powerful:
The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. (Ps 135:6)
That’s clear. God does whatever he wants. He is all-powerful.
And it does say God is all-good. ‘God is love,’ John says simply (1John 4:8,16). And, because he is love, he always acts lovingly:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. (Ps 106:1)
So, yes, God is all-good.
And suffering exists. The Bible admits that, too, but we don’t really need the Bible to prove it. We just need to open our door or turn on our TV. It’s said that the 19th century novelist G.K. Chesterton once had a man say to him that suffering didn’t exist, and so to prove him wrong, Chesterton kicked him in the shin. It’s clear who won the argument!
So, the Bible says God is all-powerful and all-good and that suffering exists. What gives?
Just because we don’t know what reason an all-powerful, all-good God may have for allowing pain doesn’t mean he couldn’t have one. It might just mean our minds can’t grasp that reason.
The answer is: it’s actually not actually inconsistent, a fact nearly all philosophers (of all stripes) now recognise. The reason for this is, just because we don’t know what reason an all-powerful, all-good God may have for allowing pain doesn’t mean he couldn’t have one. It might just mean our minds can’t grasp that reason. It’s a bit like kids and their parents. Kids may not be able to understand why their parents make the choices they do, but this doesn’t mean the parents don’t have good reasons for them. It just means the kids aren’t yet old enough to grasp them. In the same way, God may have excellent reasons for allowing suffering, we just don’t know them yet.
None of this changes the awfulness of suffering. It just recognises that an all-powerful, all-good God might still have a good reason to allow it.
But what could that good reason be? Why would he allow suffering?
Why would an all-powerful, all-good God still let us suffer?
First, because, as a race, we’ve sinned, and suffering is God’s punishment for sin.
Humans have sinned:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)
And, second, because suffering is God’s punishment for sin:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat or your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:17-19)
In response to sin, God makes life hard—he curses the ground—and he makes life short. We suffer, as a race, as a punishment for our sins, and we die.
The New Testament says the same thing. Describing the consequence of the fall, Paul puts it this way:
… the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it’ (Rom 8:20).
Creation is ‘subjected to frustration.’ Life is hard and we die. This coronavirus is an example of that frustration. And that frustration is the result of ‘the will of the one who subjected it,’ God. That is, suffering is God’s punishment for an evil world.
However, at this point we need to add an important caveat. Just because suffering is God’s punishment on the world for sin doesn’t mean that an individual’s suffering is necessarily a punishment for their own, individual sins.
Just because suffering is God’s punishment on the world for sin doesn’t mean that an individual’s suffering is necessarily a punishment for their own, individual sins.
For example, Jesus’ disciples hear about some people who’ve died in an atrocity and jump to the conclusion that they must have therefore done something to deserve it. But Jesus corrects them:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Lk 13:1-5)
In other words, Jesus says we can’t conclude from an individual’s suffering that they must have done something to deserve it. They may have—for example, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for fraud (Ac 5:1-11)—but this shouldn’t be our starting assumption. If someone is suffering—if they get sick with coronavirus, lose their job, or feel lonely in isolation—it’s almost certainly just because they’re caught up in God’s general judgment on the world. And Jesus tells us not to assume otherwise.
But he does say we are to assume that we’re all under God’s general judgment for sin, and need to repent. That’s one of the functions of suffering in a fallen world: to alert us to our need, as a race, for mercy. C.S. Lewis puts it well again:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
In summary: why does an all-powerful, all-good God let us suffer? What good reason does he have for it? Because we’ve sinned, and suffering is God’s punishment for sin.
And yet … there are four important ‘buts’ to this. We’ll turn to them in Part 2.