Question: "Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?"
This is a tough question for Christians--in fact probably the toughest question. This is the famous "problem of evil", and it is one of the clear points of vulnerability of any theistic philosophy. An entire discipline of theological enquiry, known as "theodicy", aims to address this. Even Christians have sometimes abandoned theism in favor of alternative explanations, such as that God loves us but isn't all that powerful; Their answer to God echoes the words of the creepy and brilliant boy Cole in "The Sixth Sense" movie: "You're nice, but you can't help me."
There exist a number of answers that are reasonable, and the sources located below may be of service. But at those times when we are hurting, such explanations seem often hollow and cold. They don't do much to assuage the emotional pain. In my low times, here are a few thoughts that seem to help me.
1. God Suffers, Too
I read once (but cannot currently recall where), a reflection upon a painting that hangs in one of those medieval hospitals founded by some Christian order. The Renaissance artist went wild trying to capture the pain of Jesus dying on the cross. His body writhes in agony as blood pours from his wounds. The vivid--perhaps lurid?--reminder of Jesus' suffering was often a source of comfort for the sick and the dying. Their God was no distant cold "Prime Mover" or "Divine Watchmaker". They could gaze upon a God who came among us, who took up our weaknesses, and suffered unimaginably.
When we ache, we know that God is there with us in our misery. Recently, the anniversary of the 9-11-2001 attacks reminded us of a tragic event where thousands of lives were snuffed out by the hatred of a group of conspirators. I wrote a blog article about the makeshift cross that was discovered in the rubble of the Twin Towers by a worker. It became a source of comfort and a place of pilgrimage:
One minister at the site says that when a family of a man who died in the attacks came to the cross shrine and left personal effects there, “It was as if the cross took in the grief and loss. I never felt Jesus more.”
2. The Mystery of Goodness
I recall that very soon after those attacks, a memorable sermon was preached in a midtown church by a New York City pastor:Evil is a deep mystery, going all the way back to the Devil and his own rebellion against the Creator. Jesus has taught us that God is both almighty and good; why God permits evil of this kind, is a mystery. And as we know from the horrible scene a few miles downtown, evil can be destructive and malicious beyond our capacity to imagine.
On the other hand, no one asks, Why does good happen? Do you know, that is a deep mystery too? Goodness is a mystery.
(Andrew Mead, "The Mystery of Goodness." A sermon preached at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, Sept 16, 2001).
This is the flip side of the Problem of Evil, and it is a problem for atheistic philosophies. It is what we might call "the problem of goodness". Why do --or really why should --people do good? Why should we feel such a strong desire for justice and goodness to prevail? Why should we vehemently recoil (as we do) when hatred attacks innocent people, such as on 9-11, or when a racist man shot up a black Bible study, or when a bigoted ISIS sympathizer shot up a gay nightclub in Florida, or when terrorists slit the throat of an old priest in France? And furthermore, what basis is there to say that one ought to behave one way and not another? As one writer put it,
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
3. Temporary vs Eternal
The last thing that tends to help me is to meditate upon the Christian hope of eternal life. This is a response that assumes the Christian version of a life after death. Such a life, if we accept it, will be spent basking in the joy of God's presence. The finite is swallowed by the infinite, the temporal by the eternal. However much, and however long, we may suffer in this life, that quantity is squashed to zero by the sheer magnitude of the joy to come. Or as Saint Paul stated it,
"...our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, Holy Bible, New International Version).
For further reading:
- Leibniz, Gottfried Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, 1710. Tr. E. M. Huggard. London: Routledge and Keegan, 1951. The full text is available online at The Internet Archive.
- Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
- Alvin Plantinga. "Free Will Defense", in Max Black (ed), Philosophy in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965