How Could God Allow Suffering?
With so much evil and suffering in the world, how could it be reasonable to believe that God actually exists?
Morning again. I’m still David Sorn the lead pastor of Renovation Church.
We are continuing in our “Reason to Believe” series.
Where we are in our 3rd week of our 5 week exercise of examining whether it’s more reasonable to believe in God or not.
We’ve been examining evidence, reason, and logic and seeing if Christianity is even worthwhile.
And today, we’re going to tackle another tough question. Another tough objection.
In fact, it’s maybe both the toughest and most common objection to Christianity.
And it’s the question you saw in the video: “With so much evil and suffering in the world, how could God possibly exist?”
And let me say a few words about where I’m going to take this this morning.
My goal is not to find a perfect reason behind every personal instance of suffering that we’ve each had.
I doubt I can do that.
In fact, we can’t do that.
And this will be much more of a philosophical approach to suffering this morning than a relational or pastoral approach that we’ve maybe done in the past
Our goal this morning (in THIS series) is simply to determine the following: Since there is indeed so much suffering, is it reasonable to therefore not believe in God? Or is that not a reasonable conclusion?
I’m going to start by reading a quote that has been making atheists out of people for over 2,000 years.
You may think, “This is church…please don’t do that.”
But listen, no one’s going to be convinced if all Christianity is cutsey paintings, cheesey tattoos, and 7 steps to fix your marriage that all start with P.
We have to be willing to ask the tough questions…and more importantly provide answers to them.
300 years before Jesus, the famous Greek Philosopher Epicurus said this, “God is believed by most people to be infinite in his power and also in his goodness and compassion. Now, evil exists in the world and seems always to have existed. If God is unable to remove evil, he lacks omnipotence. If God is able to remove evil but doesn't, he lacks goodness and compassion. So clearly, the “all-powerful, compassionate God” that most people pray to…does not exist.
That’s quite the statement.
And it appears quite rational and logical.
Which is probably why it’s been repeated in different forms over the past 2,000 years.
But is there an answer to it? And does Christianity provide it?
SUFFERING HELPS US GROW AND IS A BY-PRODUCT OF HUMAN FREEDOM
When it comes to providing an answering for suffering, there are varying levels of difficultly.
You don’t have to be a philosopher to understand that our trials sometimes make us stronger.
You could watch a few chick flicks every Valentine’s day and figure this out.
The couple goes through a really hard time of suffering…she’s mad because she found she was “a bet,”…but in the end…they’re stronger for it.
Our cultural American sayings embody this sort of thinking, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” etc.
We know that sometimes suffering, in the end, is for the better.
BUT…….we often use that as answers for some of the tamer forms of suffering.
(This is why there are varying levels of difficultly for answering today’s question)
We use these answers for suffering like:
“I failed my first college class, but it woke me up and caused me to work even harder”
“I got fired from my first job at Dairy Queen, and I made a commitment right then and there to never sleep on the job again”
Of course, I’m being a little silly here, but the Bible does speak to this sort of suffering, and the reasoning behind it, on a slightly more serious matter
(Romans 5:3-4) – NIV
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.
So suffering, actually, can produce something greater in us.
Even when I look at my own life…
If I look deep into my life and find a few good things about myself…a large portion of them were born into me out of suffering.
And some of that suffering was of my own choosing…which can’t be left out in this debate.
I made stupid choices and suffered for it.
And yet, in the end, God found a way to use even that for good
And it is of interesting note that most of us (especially the older you get…and many of you are older than me)…most of us can point to a greater reason for at least the majority of our suffering.
It stands to reason, therefore, if we can find a reason behind over half of our suffering, is it that unthinkable that an infinite and all-knowing God could explain the rest of them?
Or, here’s a different way to think about it: What if I could live the same 32 years of my life over again and NOT suffer…at all? Ever.
Who would I be?
Probably half the man.
You can get a glimpse of this by watching reality TV…and watching the lives of sheltered, spoiled rich kids who’s parents guard them from any sort of difficulty or trial.
And what kind of character is that producing in them?
Because remember…suffering produces perseverance which produces character.
But again, this is the easy stuff.
I’m answering with amateurish answers at this point. J
What about wars and senseless acts of violence and all of that?
One of the reasons suffering exists is because God gives us human freedom.
In ways that are hard for us to understand, God is in control, and yet, he does not force us to do anything.
We have free will.
And when we have free will…WE will sometimes CHOOSE to do horrible things…of our OWN doing.
WE DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE’S DOING
But what about the things that have nothing to do with human freedom?
What about when people get cancer? Or have a stroke? What about when you lose your legs in an accident, and you can’t walk anymore?
What about the people in countries like Haiti…who have not only NO job…but no food…no permanent shelter?
What does getting cancer have to do with human freedom and what possible good could come from that?!
And the questions are getting harder to answer.
Sometimes, it’s not that suffering is producing a character trait in us, but that it just takes us a long time to really understand God’s plan.
I love the story of Gladys Aylward.
As a little girl she was incredibly insecure about her looks.
In fact, she had two great sorrows about how God made her.
ONE: All of her friends had beautiful golden hair; hers was dark black.
TWO: While her friends were still growing, she had stopped.
She was 4 foot 10.
But when she finally followed God’s call to be a missionary, she stood on the wharf in Shanghai and looked around at the people whom God had called her…and her heart leapt.
She wrote that, “Every single one of them had black hair. And everyone of them had stopped growing when I did.” J
And God’s plans made sense.
Or take the parable of the bear and the trap.
An outdoorsman was out walking in the woods and found a bear caught in a trap.
He had mercy on the bear and wanted to liberate him, but he can’t exactly just walk up to the bear.
So he has to shoot it with a tranquilizer.
Now, as the bear is getting shot, he’s thinking, “You are the most despicable creature alive!! You shot me!!!”
Then, in order to get him out of the trap, the man has to push him further into the trap to release the tension on the spring.
Just as he’s doing this, the tranquilizer is wearing off, and the bear thinks, “Oh great!! Now you’re just punishing me for fun! You cruel, sick man!”
But the bear just reaches these conclusions because he can’t reason like a human being.
And, in reality, the gap of reasoning between a human and God is significantly wider than a bear and a man.
And if a bear can’t understand the whole truth, it stands to reason that we probably won’t always get pain either.
Let me tell you one more parable on this level.
It’s a famous parable of philosophy.
Imagine you are in German-occupied France during World War II and you want to join the resistance movement against the Nazis.
One evening, in the local bar, a stranger comes up to you and introduces himself as the leader of the local resistance.
He spends the evening with you, explaining the general requirements of your duties, giving you a chance to assess his trustworthiness, and offering you the chance to go no further
But his warning is stern: If you join, your life will be at risk. This will be the only face-to-face meeting you will have.
After this, you will receive orders and you will have to follow them without question, often completely in the dark as to the whys and wherefores of the operations, and always with the terrifying fear that your trust may be betrayed.
Is such trust reasonable?
Sometimes what the resistance leader is doing will be obvious. He is helping members of the resistance. "Thank heavens he is on our side," you say.
Sometimes it is not obvious at all. He is in a Nazi uniform arresting other people a part of your secret movement and—unknown to you—releasing them out of sight to help them escape the Nazis.
But always you must trust and follow the orders without question, despite all appearances, no matter what happens. "The resistance leader knows best," you say.
Now only after the war, will the secrets be open, the codes revealed, the true comrades vindicated, the traitors exposed, and sense made of the explanations.
Os Guinness, who writes and speaks often with Ravi Zacharias, says this about the parable:
“Evil is not a problem because God is too small, though doing his best, but because God is so great that we cannot be expected to know what He is doing”
At least…this side of heaven.
But what if we ask even harder questions of God?
What about this: What about when people die from earthquakes? Or Tsunamis? Or car accidents? Or DIE from cancer?
Or what about miscarriages? Or children who die too soon?
Is there any point whatsoever to that?
Is there some bow we can wrap around this?
I think this is the point where we as Christians make the most mistakes in answering our friends.
We try and answer them with 1st and 2nd level answers, even though they’re asking a 10th level suffering questions.
We say…”It’ll make you stronger” OR ”I’m sorry your son died, but God will use it for good in your life”
It’s like, “I’m sorry, what?!”
“God will use it for good in my life?”
Some of this hallmark-card thinking comes out of an over-individualized (which is very American of us) misapplication of Romans 8:28.
(Romans 8:28) – NIV
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
See God works for the good of THOSE (it’s a group of people)…according to His purpose…His plan.
It’s not…Good will work everything together FOR YOU….for your happiness.
It’s, God will work everything together…in time….for all of his people…according to his great plans.
We sometimes misunderstand suffering simply because we come to the discussion thinking that God’s ultimate want for us is to make us happy.
Which is not true.
God’s ultimate goal is that we know Him.
And worship Him as Lord.
But, let’s say it is about God working together some greater plan…why use tragedy? Why death? Why do family members have to die?
I don’t know. I don’t know why a specific person had to die or suffer.
I think we’ve gotta be okay saying “I don’t know” more often.
Now philosophically and theologically, I think there is a much bigger plan…but that PLAN is not how we comfort people…and the plan…is not as individualized as we would like to make it in our self-obsessed culture.
We are SO self-obsessed in our culture that studies show that we, as rich Americans, are significantly more likely to ask questions like, “How could God exist when there are so many starving people in Africa,” than the people who are actually starving in Africa are to ask the same question.
And that self-obsession sometimes limits us from seeing a greater plan where we aren’t the central hero of the story.
For instance, the 18th-century philosopher G.W. Leibniz developed a fascinating philosophy that says what God has created is the “best of all possible worlds.”
There is only evil, because in the “best of all possible worlds” that God could have created, there must be things like courage…not an absence of courage… but you can’t have courage without evil.
And you can’t have things like unconditional love with out sin…without suffering.
Leibniz also theorizes that when we see something terrible happen, what we don’t know (from our limited perspective) is if God allowed that to happen to prevent an even more terrible event from occurring.
For instance: What if 10 people died in a hospital of a terrible virus?
You could say, “God, you murderer! How could you?! One was a school teacher…another a nun!”
But what if God was only doing so because if they wouldn’t have all died in the hospital, there would have been a viral outbreak killing millions?
Plus, maybe they were all Christians anyway?
You get the idea.
But the idea of limited perspective is important.
An interesting example of this in science is Chaos theory.
Are you familiar with this?
In the more popular vernacular, it’s called the Butterfly Effect.
We know that some scientific systems…weather in particular…are incredibly sensitive to even the tiniest conditions and occurrences.
The theory comes from a famous paper in the 70’s titled: ”Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
In other words, events just “don’t’ happen.”
In theory, they could be traced back to millions of little events.
Sociologists know that when someone commits a crime…it’s not a random act. You don’t just wake up and decide to kill someone.
It’s a series of events leading up to it…that maybe started with the words of a bully in second grade.
The same could be true of noble and courageous acts.
But sometimes…in the making of those acts…there were negative things that shaped it along the way.
And what we simply can not EVER understand from our limited perspective, is if from God’s perspective of weaving 7 billion stories together at once, MAYBE THERE WAS a morally sufficient reason for letting someone die too soon.
Maybe, like the butterfly, that death set in motion a chain of events that will morally change the fabric of our land 100 years from now.
On it’s own suffering often doesn’t make sense.
But we can’t see the whole picture. We are limited in time, space, intelligence, and insight.
And God is limited in NONE of those things.
This is what’s wrong with the initial quote from Epicurus that has caused so many to doubt God and become atheists
We say, “If God is unable to remove pointless evil, then He must be powerless, or He doesn’t exist.”
But that presupposes that all evil is pointless. It presupposes that WE can obviously see that there is ZERO point to the suffering that God has allowed.
See, to say, “There is suffering, so therefore there is no God,” you’d also have to very confident that you personally understood every single reason behind why suffering happens
And again, I think for a lot of suffering, we will NEVER know why (and I’m honestly bothered by people who try and come up w/ hallmark reasons for why). Some of this stuff, we’re just never gonna know this side of heaven.
But one day…in heaven…God will reveal it. And it will make sense.
DO YOU ACTUALLY BELIEVE THE OPPOSITE OF GOD? EXAMINING THE ALTERNATIVE
But people still say all the time, “That’s ridiculous. I just couldn’t ever believe in God after what happened. I couldn’t believe in a God if there truly is that much suffering in the world”
But if we’re going to be good thinkers, we then have to ask, “What DO you believe in then?”
This goes back to the main crux of this series.
We create a false dichotomy when we say:
Option 1 is weigh the evidence and believe in God
Option 2 is just say, “Nah, I don’t believe that stuff?”
What we often never articulate is the “begged question:” What DO you believe in then?
It’s not faith vs. no faith.
Everyone has faith in something.
And if you don’t have faith that God still exists despite suffering than you have FAITH that NO God exists.
And not just NO God.
No purpose. No blessing. No eternal life. Just NOTHING.
And logically, it breaks down even a step further.
If There is no “moral high ground” where you can say, “I couldn’t believe in a God who did so many wrong things and such evil!”
If you want to be logically consistent, you can’t say that.
Because those are objections born out of a Christian framework.
To say “How could God do that?! That’s WRONG. To let a child die. Just WRONG. To let someone die of cancer. It’s not RIGHT. To have millions die of hunger. It’s not JUST.”
In order to make such an objection, you also have to assume there is some sort of thing as absolute right and wrong you can appeal to!
Some standard that says what indeed is “right and wrong” or what indeed is “just.” t
But only God gives us that.
It’s like disbelieving in God by using evidence that proves He’s true.
See, atheism provides no such moral ground of right and wrong.
Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist in the world right now, says it this way:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. – Richard Dawkins
Let me read you a few more quotes that I think will help us.
It's more offensive both to reason and to life itself to imagine that we live in a world where there is no ultimate meaning or purpose. The only thing worse than losing a loved one in such a tragedy is believing that their death—and their life—had no transcendent purpose." – Michael Horton
William Lane Craig, one of the smartest people alive right now, summarizes are argument this way:
Even though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil. – William Lane Craig
SUFFERING IS BEARABLE BECAUSE JESUS BORE OUR SUFFERING
I would say that even a bit differently…and I’m sure he would agree with me.
It’s that Jesus is the only solution to the problem of evil…and the problem of suffering.
Because unlike Buddha or Allah….Jesus, himself, suffered….for us.
It’s difficult to understand WHY we suffer sometimes.
But we know that it’s NOT because God doesn’t love us.
This is what is demonstrated so powerfully through Jesus and the cross.
See, often when we suffer, we have the wrong picture of God.
We picture God, up on the throne, aloof, too busy to notice…too careless to care, to powerless to do anything.
But that’s not God at all.
You see…He cares SO much that He sent His own son to earth for you.
To be despised, and mocked….spit on…whipped…rejected…and to suffer.
To suffer on the cross. For us.
God is not some far off aloof God.
The truth God is the God of the cross.
The God that comes near…The God that comes on a rescue mission for us.
The God who suffered more than any of us could ever imagine by taking the weight and the punishment of every cruel and despicable act of all of history…all on him at once…on the cross.
This is a God who knows pain. He knows rejection. Sadness. Despair.
But why? Why did He do it?
He suffers for us…in our place…so that one day there will be no more suffering.
Yes, God doesn’t rid our current world of evil and suffering, but he suffered, so that we won’t have to suffer for the vast majority of eternity.
The Bible brilliantly points to this.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18) – NIV
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 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.
It’s not just that we had a God who suffered for us and knows our pain and trials (as Hebrews says), it’s that we have a God who makes everything right again.
In heaven, we don’t just get an amazing place without suffering…God is reconciling the wrongs of the world.
As J.R.R. Tolkein writes in the LOTR, “Everything sad is going to come untrue”
So, yes, many of our loved ones have gone to soon, but think of it this way: After we’ve spent 100,000 years with them in heaven, I doubt we will question the 40 years we spent apart.
In heaven, we will finally start to gain the perspective that, on earth, we never had.
Let me close by sharing a story with you that I read a few months ago
In the Fall of 1991, a car driven by a drunk driver jumped its lane and smashed headfirst into a minivan driven by Jerry Sittser.
Sittser and three of his children survived, but Sittser's wife, four-year-old child, and his mother all died in the crash.
In the years that followed, Sittser offered some reflections of the event in hopes to help others.
None maybe more powerful than the reflections about his quiet son, David.
He writes the following, “My son David is—and always has been—quiet and reflective.
After the accident, he was the least likely to talk about it; but when he chose to, he usually had something significant to say or ask.
I had to be ready to respond to him when he sent cues indicating he was ready to talk.
Our best conversations happened in the car.
One particular conversation has stayed fresh in my memory. David was eight at the time; we were driving to a soccer match some distance from our home.
Typical for these occasions, David was quiet.
But then, suddenly, he asked, "Do you think Mom sees us right now?"
I paused to ponder. "I don't know, David. I think maybe she does see us. Why do you ask?"
"I don't see how she could, Dad. I thought Heaven was full of happiness. How could she bear to see us so sad?"
Could my wife witness our pain in Heaven? How could that be possible? How could she bear it?
"I think she does see us," I finally said. "But she sees the whole story, including how it all turns out, which is beautiful to her. It's going to be a good story, David."
Let me pray.
Copyright: David Sorn
Renovation Church in Blaine, MN
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