Does God care about my suffering?
This is perhaps for some, the greatest objection people have to believing in God and not a question to be ignored, nor taken lightly. And I shan’t here. Where is God in my suffering? How do we build to such a question? Well, I’m going to give it a go, please be patient, it requires some scaffolding that may sound a bit removed, but helps build the bigger picture. If you want the short 2 minute answer skip to the final question “Where is God in my suffering? Why does he seem so distant from my pain?”
If God can’t logically exist then boom, game over. But God and suffering both existing is not the same as a square circle, or a married bachelor, it’s more like sun and rain at the same time to me, you can have both.
So what is often suggested is this:
- An all-powerful, all-loving God exists.
- Suffering exists.
This is not the same as
- Brian is married
- Brian is a bachelor
The assumption in the first example is this
- If God is all-powerful, he can create any world he wants.
- If God is all-loving, he prefers a world without suffering.
Well what if (1) God wants a world populated with free people? The 1st assumption assumes God’s puppet control, yet we see people freely choose to do other than God would like everyday since the first day. You can’t force free choices and Christianity affirms free choices (It would make wrong actions kinda redundant otherwise!)
And the second (2), How could we possibly know this? We all know of cases where suffering can bring about a greater good (the dentist, yes it’s a necessary evil!)
If it’s even possible that God allows suffering in order to achieve a greater good then we cannot say this assumption is necessarily true. For the logical problem of suffering to succeed, the challenger would have to show that it’s logically impossible that free-will exists and that it’s logically impossible that God has good reasons for permitting suffering (We would also argue, Christ dying voluntarily on the cross was an act of pain that opened up a bridge to God never seen before anywhere giving access to God, that is certainly a good).
Many leading atheist scholars have accepted this conclusion like JL Mackie and William Rowe, but I hope more importantly the logic make sense to you as we work on these foundational bricks in a wall.
I suppose it’s a given from what we see, we can’t see the bigger plan, we can’’t see if one suffering a thousand years ago brought about a prosperity for today, but it could (This is always a nightmare to word as it can sound callous and cold, but stay with me).
A few quick points:
- We’re not in a position to say with any confidence that God probably lacks reasons for allowing the suffering in the world.
- Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence may well be probable.
- Christianity entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and suffering.
So for (1) we’re just limited in scope and knowledge, there are certainly examples which give us pause for thought (I’ll touch on later beyond this logic stuff)
For (2), looking at the evidence for God’s existence makes God far more likely, if you remove the arguments for God and just have suffering, sure it does look improbable (but not impossible). I as a Christian wouldn’t make the case for God’s existence just on the basis of suffering.
Now three, Christians believe the chief purpose of life is not happiness, but to know God and be known by him. Suffering is difficult, especially if this world is all there is, but if it isn’t, then it’s temporary, there will be a time of no more pain, suffering and trial. Christians also believe humans are in a rebellion with God: Some are extreme like the Nazi’s that literally reversed the ten commandments, others more lenient but still could count a thousand acts which wouldn’t align for God’s ideal for humanity (I’m far from exempt). Also God’s purposes are not restricted to this life, but it continues beyond the grave. Death is just another step in the life of a Christian. And the final point is Christianity believes the knowledge of God is an incomparable good, so the Christian can say God is good to me even in the midst of suffering, because knowing this life is not all there is, and if they can feel God’s presence (This can vary from Christian to Christian, for some it’s like wifi, others a 3g that occasionally connects), then that brings huge comfort. We live with our eternal spectacles on but are not devoid of earthly struggles.
As I talked about in Christian doctrines, humans are in a state of rebellion against God. the first of mankind had one job, and a million other options of good, and we found the bad choice, triggering off our earthly time of separation. And since then we’ve been destroying things ever since. It’s not just us who are now mess creators, but the world came part of the package, the world we were meant to look after (And yes I’m a fan of Extinction Rebellion generally) is more difficult to us than it was and more difficult to tame. We suffer for the decision the first of us made and anyone of us would have made had we been in their position.
Humans are actually responsible for a lot of evil in the world and I detail in my article on this the countless sufferings done by not just crazy people, but normal people who buy into it. School teachers, nurses, businessmen, sportsmen have all been leading soldiers in Genocides, major wars and atrocities. Psychologists and historians have concluded that in each person there is the potential to perform horrific evil and that many of us given different circumstances could be in the same shoes as a Nazi footsoldier, or a footsoldier in Genghis Kahn’s horde. The data is there and is startling at first.
Jesus reasoned that only God is good, this may sound like a strong definition of good, as if I were saying perfect. Everyone can perform good actions, but can anyone truly claim to be good completely? Do no wrong, think no wrong? Even the pride you take when helping an old lady across the street can boost your egotism (I’m not bashing those who help, I’m saying it’s possible to use helping one across the street give you your “good deed for the day” cancelling out the faults you make for the rest of it. This is a common throwaway line in British culture).
We’re all messy people and the Atheist Philosopher Michael Ruse agrees the doctrine of original sin is bang on to describe the human condition. No one is good, nor consistently good for it is too tempting to do otherwise. A system weighing individual good deeds versus bad deeds would be catastrophic for everyone!
R.C. Sproul Junior when asked about this question concludes “Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, that only happened once, and He volunteered”. (Jesus)
If God is going to create beings with free will which allows them to do other than they do, then that means that God has to allow them to do evil. You can’t tell your boy to go hang out with her new girlfriend and then chain them to the kitchen sink. God is not at fault for allowing us to do evil any more than you’re at fault for your sons choosing to have pre-marital sex with their girlfriend (Advise all you want, leaving the house will always create uncontrollable scenarios!).
For the Christian, scripture reveals we have great freedom, but it does not teach unlimited freedom. No one would become a Christian without the witness of the Holy Spirit, this needs to pervade on some of your freedoms to assist you in that choice. Also, many of the evils people desire in their heart they do not commit. For many they recognise, whether they know it or not, the moral law written on their hearts. They may take it apart and rebel against it, but often, much of it remains in tact, they can’t escape it completely.
Whether we are Christian or not, we have immense, significant freedom regarding a wide variety of choices, and we are accountable for those choices.
Also if God is so obvious, wouldn’t you just feign loyalty? The Biblical story lets you come to God and realise how much he loves you, a God whose more imposing feels like a police officer rather than a father-figure. And if everytime some catastrophe happened God stepped in, we would get suspicious and for people who freely choose to do evil, it may make them do the more extreme. God, like a miracle Butler would be working tirelessly stopping our free actions. Is that a world anyone wants to live in? It sounds like a recipe for disaster!
Of course we all think of this, I’ve thought about this many times, couldn’t God do it another way? Of course he could, not none of us would be here to see it. You see what makes you, you, is who you are and what you’ve done. In another world you wouldn’t exist and everyone who claims they’d rather not exist and have that world exist have lived to tells us this, we don’t know otherwise. Sure I’d like there to be a world where I’d be maybe a bit taller, fitter, stronger, have a better memory but that wouldn’t be me, that would be someone else. The real you that people had come to love wouldn’t be, well, you!
The idea may arise, couldn’t God prevent evil without us knowing? I don’t think so. Take a terrorist, he holds a gun to a mans head, he tries to fire and the gun isn’t loaded. He tried again with a loaded gun but this time he falls over and shoots the ground. Again he tries but the gun turns into a Banana! So the terrorist throws away the banana and starting beating the victim when suddenly his hands turn into foam sponges. When do you get suspicious? There are more obvious examples than this, but you’d know something was up, or just be plain silly to realise something was up. Maybe after 10,000 coincidences anyone would give up, even the most sceptical.
Couldn’t God just leave us lots of warnings?
He does! We call it the Bible. But to always follow again falls into the trap of not being able to freely always choose to do right. Smoking packets all have a large message saying this could kill you, yet Billions of cigarettes are lit up every year. What about if we all received prophetic warnings? Again firstly, we would get suspicious, secondly people could ignore you or you could ignore the dreams!
Couldn’t God prevent more evil than he does?
This again comes to the stopping point issue. If only 6,000 Jews died in the Holocaust is that ok? How about 600? How about 6? Or just one? If one cannot die then how can you be free in your actions? Do you make children or animals immune to any suffering? When do you stop? Do you ever stop? And how do you mix this with the ability to freely act? You can’t. there are a huge quantity of film surprisingly out there which try to take away human free will for a better life (They are always the bad guys).
These are hard statements and hard things to hear, hard to write sometimes, but it makes sense considering. Would I rather people feign loyalty and live in fear of God and then spend eternity separated from God or spend a century or less (likely) in suffering, coming to discover the love of God and then spend eternal bliss with God? The latter.
The point is we all want the latter, but we want assurances it’s true! This is why I provide arguments for God’s existence, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the reliability of the Bible. I want to help you have assurances that this is a risk worth taking and when you embrace christianity, the risk fades and becomes an assurance, one many devoted Christians are deeply aware of.
Do you ever feel the desire to eat a plateful of cow dung? No I didn’t think so, the idea disgusts you, but why? Trace it back and you’ve been made aware that it’s disgusting and that belief has grown over time to the point where the thought makes you want to physically vomit (Kids are less afraid of cow dung when they’re really small…trust me on that!). Now Christians believe prior to eternity there is a time of education, we call judgement. Not only do we stand before God to see where we stand in Christ, but we are thoroughly educated on the rights and wrongs of this world, our actions, everyone is out in the open, nothing hidden (yes, it sounds scary). This, for every person for which Christians are said to be present will be an education for who knows how long, far longer than the time you were told eating cow dung is disgusting. So Christians in heaven will have no desire to sin because every sin is like a plate of cow dung. Also Christians, who in a package deal have a spiritual side will no longer be tempted in the same ways, since that tempter is separated from God’s creation.
So we will be free, wrong actions won’t even be on the map and there’s no one to drag us again in that direction. This door obviously opens up more cosmic angelic-like questions. But you cannot debate Christianity and remove the premises of a spiritual world, it’s kind of a big thing, even if it weirds you out, it’s kind of meant to weird you out.
No, lets debunk the myths
- Heaven is not lonely, we will recognise loved ones and be of amazing cheer, we will not remember those who chose to separate themselves from them.
- The struggles of this world, our sufferings won’t be memories in heaven, they are fleeting thoughts relative which would fade prior to the heavenly period.
- Heaven is not full of boring people, there are plenty of messed up people in the Bible who eventually made it, like on earth. You’d be amazed at the type of Christians who end up there from former gang members to world class scientists.
- Everything in heaven is not white, that’s an annoying fable, the final book in the bible describes beautiful jewels, colours beyond comprehension. A restored earth and so much more…
- Heaven is not just angels, think about all God’s created, you think he’s planning on throwing away all his ideas? No he’s building on it.
- No, we don’t just sing forever. Even the characters that do sing in heaven have other responsibilities which singing would be difficult to do simultaneously (try holding a conversation with someone while singing!)
So it won’t be boring, most of these myths are carried around via film, culture or other ideals that are foreign to Christianity.
So no one likes the idea of it, those who do are usually tongue and cheek about it. Can a just God exist if he sent Hitler and Stalin to heaven to cuddle my Polish Grandma whom suffered under both of them? Generally no, there doesn’t seem to be any change in these figures before they died from what we know historically. But should all people be punished equally? Well that seems to be a no also. The New Testament describes different rewards of life in heaven, and that figures like Satan and the worse are punished for their actions, whereas the everyday man who simply rejects God and rebels against his will is going to be separated from God and loose the joys of it. The idea of non-Christians on a torture wrack is pure fiction. But I’m not dumbing down hell, separation from all that is good is a desert of just despair and selfishness. If God is good, hell is a separation from God then you’re left with the leftovers. Satan isn’t a jailmaster, that again is a fable. (This CS Lewis recreation scene helps to maybe understand what I mean)
In the parable of the rich man Jesus gives us a glimpse of hell where the person wants others to be warned but he himself has no desire to leave, rather he’s want his servant to come down to hell and serve him. Their natures are not transformed, not thinking anew, but just spirals out of their own selfishness. We see hints of this in our world now. Most cultures borrow Christian moral systems in the west and hints in the east (See Tom Holland: Dominion), take away those values if Christianity is true and the world becomes a darker place. But I repeat, no one is getting tortured. Torture and despair/selfishness are two separate branches and no one separated from God has any desire to be united to him. No one will get unfair treatment. God judges those with the knowledge they have been given and are understood on that basis. One example might be to the guy who has a church around the corner, free access to Christians and Bible’s knows God to an extend one way which the person on the desert island will be different. God doesn’t just forget people, it can feel that way sometimes from our perspective, but that’s the point. It’s our perspective and that perspective can mature for us with age (desires as a child certainly change as an adult).
Am I meant to feel good about it?
I don’t think you should, it’s saddening when people freely reject or avoid God. God is too loving to force someone into heaven against their will. You can’t force love, it has to be free. A God who is not just, who doesn’t punish evil, who doesn’t have a morally perfect standard and doesn’t make a way for us to be right by him is a God whose loose and not really in control in a healthy way. So although it’s hard (And I know it is), take seriously what Christianity is proposing, it would be tragic if you chose otherwise, not just to others, but to me.
What has God done for me in the suffering? How does he know what I feel?
You may know at the heart of Christianity is a cross, I can’t know every answer for why a good God allows suffering. But I want ask you another question, granted that the world is messy, full of beauty and barbwire, is there any evidence anywhere that there is a God you can trust with it ultimately?
As I began with, at the heart of Christianity is a cross and on that cross was Jesus, and he died. Jesus claimed to be God… Well what is God doing on a cross? It shows at the very least that God does not remain distant from the problem of human suffering but has become himself part of it.
If you begin to see that God actually understands our suffering that is far more perhaps helpful than any philosophical argument I can give here, than 90% of what I’ve written before this section. The same can be said when someone is suffering, mourning with them is far more valued than trying to just fix the problem, sometimes you just can’t.
If this was the end of the story Christianity then it would be nothing, but the God that suffered rose from the dead, and that opens up a whole world of possibility and hope, a hope you can know and hold onto.
I believe that if you can see what God has done ultimately to answer the call of suffering, our questions would stop. It depends crucially that someone (Jesus) suffered and was raised from the dead.
This last question is heavily influence by the writings of Professsor John Lennox when he spoke to Havard Medical School on Pain