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Does God Make Sense in a World Full of Suffering?

When we broach the topic of suffering, we must be extremely sensitive to someone going through a time of suffering, or someone on the sidelines of a loved one’s pain. No intellectual answer is emotionally satisfying in the midst of personal pain.

Updated Nov 13, 2023
Does God Make Sense in a World Full of Suffering?

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While it constitutes one of the great philosophical quandaries, the problem of evil is always personal. Each of us has experienced or will experience serious suffering in our lives.

For this reason, when we broach the topic, we must be extremely sensitive to someone going through a time of suffering, or someone on the sidelines of a loved one’s pain. No intellectual answer is emotionally satisfying in the midst of personal pain.

We must also resist the perennial temptation to give a direct answer as to why God has allowed specific instances of suffering in a person’s life. For someone in the midst of a difficult situation, we can best honor them with our presence.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff says in his meditation on the loss of his 27-year-old son, “Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”

By any honest measure, the problem of evil is not just a Christian problem, but perhaps the toughest subject with which all philosophies and religions must wrestle. The problem can be summarized like this:

  • An all-powerful God could prevent or stop evil and human suffering.
  • An all-good God would want to prevent or stop evil and human suffering.
  • But our experience shows that evil and human suffering still exist.

Therefore, there are three major approaches to this problem:=

  • Evil exists and God doesn’t (atheism).
  • God exists and evil doesn’t (pantheism).
  • Somehow, they both exist (theism) but there is an explanation for evil.

1. Evil Exists and God Doesn’t

The atheist solves the problem by eliminating God. Evil and suffering are taken as a given, but the existence of God is not. Because of the prevalence of evil in the world, the conclusion runs as follows: therefore, an all-good, all-powerful God is impossible or at least unlikely.

But if there is no God, where do our ideas of right and wrong or good and evil come from? Indeed, in the absence of a moral lawgiver, evil ceases to make sense as a moral category.

At best, “good and evil” are human conventions with no grounding in reality. If there is no God, then the universal sense of “that’s not the way it is supposed to be” is meaningless.

Given this, it becomes clear that the atheistic position on the problem of evil offers neither comfort for the present nor hope for the future.

There is no meaning or justification for suffering, there will be no justice for those who cause it, and there is no meaningful hope that the situation will ever improve.

While our world has made breathtaking advancements in science and technology, our track record on morality provides little evidence for optimism.

2. God Exists and Evil Doesn’t

The pantheist argues that evil cannot be real if his view of God (God is all and all is God) is correct. Our experience of evil is an illusion. Yet this contradicts our experience of the world. All around us, we see suffering and the evil that humans do.

Are we to claim that this isn’t real? And if we can’t trust our experiences or our reason for them, how can we trust the pantheist’s claims about the world? If all reality is God, what is the source of these deceitful sensory experiences?

These issues are made worse by reincarnation. According to the principles of karma, any suffering incurred is retribution for wrongs committed in this life or a prior one.

So, on one level, suffering is an illusion we must overcome, but on the other, our suffering is our own fault.

Worse, the suffering of “the innocent child” is her fault. The notion that we are morally responsible for illusory suffering clearly strains credibility.

3. God and Evil Both Exist

Non-biblical Theisms

Finitism. This position argues that God is finite in his powers and is thus unable to control or stop evil. The assumption behind this position is that God is incapable of defeating evil because he has not done it yet.

But the fact that God has not defeated evil today does not eliminate his ability to do it later. It also offers no hope of a solution.

The usual suggestion is that with humanity’s help, God can overcome evil, yet given our track record, there is little reason to think we will succeed.

Dualism. Dualism argues that God and evil are coeternal and equal opposites. This assumes that nothing can be the source of its opposite, that evil is a thing, and that if God were the only eternal source of all things, then he would be the cause of evil. Since God cannot be the source of evil, God and evil must be co-eternal.

These assumptions raise a host of problems. First, evil can occur out of good as an unintended side-effect of the good action. Second, opposites do not necessarily require the same origin. Third, the concept of two ultimate forces that are in eternal opposition, each having the same amount of power, is not logical.

An absolute irresistible force and an absolute immovable object cannot coexist. If the force cannot move the object, it is no longer irresistible.

If the object can be moved, it is no longer immovable. Either evil is greater than God, or God is greater than evil. It is logically absurd to have them as absolute coequals in eternal opposition.

Most importantly, evil is not a thing. Evil does not have an existence of its own; it is a corruption of what already exists.

Evil is real, but not a substance in and of itself. Rather, evil is an absence or privation of something good. Evil does not exist by itself, because it does not exist apart from good.

An Evil God. This position says that God is all-powerful, but he is sadistic and, therefore, not all-good. It’s worth noting that this position has usually been espoused by atheists writing satirically about theism.

Biblical Theism. The Bible teaches that God is all-good and all-powerful. He recognizes the reality of evil and will one day end evil and restore peace.

This raises two questions: One, Causation — why did an all-good, all-powerful God allow evil? Two, Cessation — why hasn’t God put an end to evil?

Why Did God Allow Evil to Occur in the First Place?

God created the universe without evil and suffering. He also created us with the ability to freely love or reject him as our Creator. God desires a loving fellowship with us, but the ability to reject as well as accept is essential to any relationship.

God promised that if humans chose to embrace him, their fellowship and blessings could continue. But turning away from the source of life would bring separation from him (spiritual death) and physical death as well (Genesis 2-3).

His people chose to go their own way rather than follow God’s and have suffered the consequences of that choice. Evil and suffering entered the world as a consequence of this betrayal. Theologians call this choice and its attendant consequences “the Fall.”

Thus, God did not create nor is responsible for evil and sin. God’s plan had the potential for evil when he gave us freedom of choice.

Evil, remember, is not a thing, but a parasite on the good created by God. We turned away from God, the source of life and goodness, and evil was the outcome.

The Fall resulted in both moral and natural evil. Moral evil is caused by our inhumanity to other people. The suffering of innocent people is part of the insidiousness of evil.

If only the wicked suffered, we would call that justice; but because there are innocent victims, there is a problem of injustice. But humanity’s Fall also led to a curse on the creation, and so we also suffer from natural disasters.

Even worse, by rejecting God’s way and choosing evil instead, we incur divine judgment. A sin against an infinitely holy God merits infinite punishment, and thus we merit an eternity of separation from the source of life.

But God’s justice in demanding punishment for sin must be kept in balance with his great love for us and for his creation. Astonishingly, he took upon himself the punishment that was due to us by sending his Son into the world to suffer and die on our behalf.

Now the choice is up to us — we can pay the penalty ourselves or accept God’s gracious payment. The penalty will be paid. The only question is, who will pay for it?

This is the biblical account of the problem of evil, but it raises the question, why hasn’t God stopped evil?

Most people don’t want God to eliminate all evil; after all, that would include them. But God is not interested in a partial containment of evil. The question should not be, will God stop evil? but, when will he stop evil? By delaying his return, Christ is extending the opportunity for people to turn to him and thus escape eternal punishment.

1. The Fall of angels and men. Evil first came into the creation through the choice of Satan. Satan and the other angels were spirit beings whom God had created before the story in Genesis 3.

Satan and a group of other angels chose to rebel against God; many other angels did not and love and serve God today.

Satan came to Eden in the form of a serpent and led Adam and Eve to reject God and follow him. Their fellowship with God was broken and thus evil and suffering entered our world.

Their sin and rebellion were passed on to their descendants, and thus all people are in need of salvation.

2. The justice of hell. Many people question the love of God because of the biblical concept of hell. Some would rather have God solve our problem of separation by either allowing everyone into heaven (universalism) or by annihilating the wicked.

Both alternatives contradict the testimony of Christ and the Bible. The concept of universalism is a violation of our free choice. Hell is the consequence of our rebellion against God.

If everyone goes to heaven, there is no ultimate justice, and our moral choices are meaningless because they all lead to the same end.

In the end, evil must be contained, and hell is the place where God contains it. Hell is required if justice and peace are to be restored in the age to come.

Hell not only displays the justice of God but also his love. God does not force his love on us. When the unbeliever chooses not to accept God’s payment for his sin, God says, “My love for you recognizes your choice to be separated from me, and thus I give you a place to exist in rebellion for all eternity.”

To the believer, God says, “I love you so much that I will contain evil in hell forever so that peace and harmony can be restored to creation.”

3. The mercy of hell. For those who have rejected him, being in the direct presence of God in all his infinite holiness and beauty would be their hell.

It would also diminish the perfection of heaven. The best and most merciful solution is to permanently separate those who have rejected God from his presence.

4. Other options available to God. God could have chosen not to create us at all. But the wellspring of beauty, goodness, and truth is worthy of worship. The best way to reveal his glory was to redeem a corrupt creation and make all things new.

God could have created us perfect and without choice. But without responsible choice, there is no capacity for love. The beauty of a loving relationship is that people love one another because of their own desire, and not because they are forced into it.

Have questions? Join Dr. Boa’s live interactive webinar on Monday nights at 8 pm EST, Think on These Things.

For further reading:

Can Christians Know if God Truly Exists?

3 Reasons Christians Can Trust the Reliability of the Bible

Why Do Honest Questions Require Thoughtful Answers from Christians?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Halfpoint


Kenneth Boa

Kenneth Boa equips people to love well (being), learn well (knowing), and live well (doing). He is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor and is the President of Reflections Ministries, The Museum of Created Beauty, and Trinity House Publishers.

Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, Handbook to Prayer, Handbook to Leadership, Faith Has Its Reasons, Rewriting Your Broken Story, Life in the Presence of God, Leverage, and Recalibrate Your Life.

Dr. Boa holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England. 

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