Dr. Bart Ehrman has a book titled, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. I’ve never read this book, so I’m not going to make a counter-argument to what I think Ehrman would say after a title like this (although, I have read much of his other works and I know his perspective on the issue). What’s been on my mind for a while is the subject of human suffering while an all-powerful, loving God sits on the sidelines.
I alluded to this in my other post from today, but I wanted to expand a bit more here. The basic question that trips many people up – myself included – is why is there pain? Why is there so much suffering throughout the world if the God of the Bible is an all-powerful, loving God who could bring about absolute peace in an instant? It really is a frustrating question.
For me, I see it as more of a philosophical question than an argumentative one, though it could be both. At any rate, finding an answer to this question is extremely difficult because 1. It isn’t explicitly dealt with in Scripture and 2. To thoroughly answer it, we must have access to the foreknowledge of God, which – if we have any access at all – is extremely limited. Nevertheless, the question remains and we can’t avoid it.
A traditional way of answering this question breaks it into two parts; why is there suffering and why isn’t God doing anything about it?
Why is there suffering?
In general, many Christians refer back to the Fall of Man in Genesis 3; where Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and sin entered the world. At this point, many Christians say, “There’s your answer; that’s why human suffering exists.” I would say it’s a little more nuanced than this. For one thing, Genesis 1-11 may not be an historical account of the world’s beginnings. Nevertheless, the metaphor from this story is just as true and gives, essentially, the same answer: Humans can be selfish. Our selfishness, if consciously gratified, can bring about devastating consequences.
There is suffering because humanity has had a history of acting out of selfish desires here and there and the consequences have gotten worse and worse over a long period of time. We are part of the problem. Every time we gratify our carnal desires for money, food, sex, drugs, or whatever else our inclinations may be, we bring about consequences of pain and suffering not only for ourselves, but for the people around us as well. It may take years for these consequences to surface, but they do. And they hurt.
Why isn’t God doing anything about it?
In short, I believe He is. But, obviously, not in the way we want Him to. This entire issue of human suffering and God’s fix to the problem delves into the existence of free will. We are part of the problem because we have made terrible choices with our free will. God’s solution to the problem, however, also comes through our choices with our free will.
Right now I’m studying through the book of Acts. It’s a strange book when you consider all the others and their genres. Acts is in its own category altogether. It’s not entirely a Gospel because it doesn’t narrate the life and teachings of Jesus. And yet it’s not entirely a doctrinal or theological treatise like the epistles, either. What is it then?
It’s an account (sometimes a theological one, sometimes an historical one, etc.) of Jesus’ movement through His disciples after He has disappeared. It highlights the choices His disciples make (after walking with Him for only about 3 years) with their free will. They argued, backslid, and even sinned in their effort to consciously follow Jesus, but overall they began a movement that, whether you believe in Jesus or not, changed the world forever. What were the consequences of this movement? Well, not all of them were good, obviously. But a solution to human suffering is in motion.
The Book of Acts encapsulates God’s war on human suffering by utilizing the powerful weapon of human compassion. Jesus (or Emmanuel, “God With Us”) arrives into human history, as the Gospels portray, to live the life God wants each of His followers to consciously live. He loves the unlovable, serves the servants, touches the untouchables, and feeds the people no one, not even His disciples (they ask Jesus to “Send them away” – Mark 6:36), would dare to feed. He taught us to love God and love our neighbor.
But then He was crucified – killed by the very people He had shown compassion, mercy, and reckless love to. Why did God allow this to happen? So that the consequences of our sinful actions may no longer be passed down to human generation after human generation, but to Himself. He took what we deserved because He knew that if He didn’t, His solution to the problem would never have a chance of coming about.
Something else then happens: Jesus is raised from the dead. What happens here is that God defeated the consequences of sin (death) in His own death. As John Mark McMillan sings, He put “Death in his grave.” What this then enabled is what we see in the Book of Acts: God’s people empowered by His Spirit conquering the world not with violence and blood, but with service and love.
One might ask, “Well that’s all well and good, but God could just end human suffering, couldn’t He? He’s all-powerful, isn’t He?” True, but there’s a major oversight in this kind of questioning. It assumes, as far as I can see anyway, that the person asking it isn’t part of the problem. It assumes that he or she is, in fact, on the good side of it all – not partaking in causing someone else pain. But that is far from the truth. We all sin, therefore we are all part of the problem.
But the weapon that sin used to bring about this pain and suffering can be used to end it.
It’s a matter of choice.
“Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating. …
“Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. …If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings – then we may take it it is worth paying,” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
God pushed His chips all in when He created creatures with free will. But, ironically, in paying everything He had, He also set in motion the only possible way of ending this thing called pain. If left to ourselves, we are hopeless. We will all suffer even worse than what we have in the past and it will never end. But God has snuck in through the back door and has launched an underground attack using us as His double-agents: Though we once provoked sin and all its consequences, we can now end it entirely.
Why the delay? Why doesn’t God somehow accelerate the process? The way I see it, as Lewis says, God wants us willingly on board. He wants us to be part of the solution. He doesn’t want us to root for His team as band-wagon fans, but because we truly believe and have faith in what He can accomplish. He doesn’t want us to just root for His team, either; He wants us playing for it. He wants us getting our hands dirty with the work His mission requires. And if you pay any attention at all to the amount of human suffering in the world, you can tell there is quite a bit of work to do.
All of this, of course, is my best guess at the problem of pain and God’s delay in solving it. To me it remains a frustrating issue, but that might be because I, in my selfish desires, would rather have someone else do the dirty work instead of me. This is exactly the problem and in order for anything to change, it begins with the disease growing in our hearts.
Thankfully, though, we know a good Physician.