Why Does God Allow Suffering?  A Question Reconsidered

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge to Christian spirituality is the question, “why does God allow suffering?”  Cancer; earthquakes; car wrecks; heart attacks; strokes; shootings; home invasions; broken bones – the number of evils that occur moment by moment on this troubled planet is too high to add up.

Given that the world is immersed in suffering and tragedy, how can any rational person believe in an all-good, all-powerful God?  Believers have struggled to answer that question for thousands of years.  They have failed to come up with anything truly satisfying, thought they have developed some thought-provoking responses.  Here are a few:

  • God allows evil because the only way to prevent it would be to deny human beings free will.  In a world where people are allowed to think and act for themselves, it’s always possible that they will choose evil over good.
  • God allows evil in order to build our moral character.  How could we learn to be compassionate in a world with no suffering?  How could we practice bravery in the absence of danger?  How could we understand how truly precious life is, except in the face of sickness and death?  Evil is essential if we are to be truly moral beings.
  • God operates on a scale that is impossible for humans to understand.  Because of this, we misunderstand much of what occurs in the world.  Though many of these events seem pointless to us, in reality they are part of a greater mission that God is working out in God’s own time.  We simply need to accept this and trust that everything happens for a reason.

As I said before, these are cogent, thoughtful responses.  Yet, as powerful as they are, they share a common weakness: they treat evil as a thorny philosophical question that has a rational answer. In the real world, however, evil is never so abstract or so reasonable.  On the contrary, it’s deeply personal and very, very ugly.  It shatters our faith and drives us to ask questions like these:

  • Why did God let that bastard murder my little girl?  Even if she’s in heaven now, why was she taken from me so early?  Why was her life so short and her death so painful?
  • Why do I have incurable cancer?  I’ve always been a good person.  All over the world, there are horrible people who are in the best of health.  Why did God let me get this disease instead of them?  How is that fair?
  • That lady from church says that God miraculously healed her heart disease.  But my condition is far worse than hers ever was, and so far God has ignored my prayers.  Does he love her more than me?
  • I know God must allow some evil in order to work out his purposes.  But that doesn’t explain why he let our dog get hit by that car.  Would sending an angel to watch over our little pup have ruined his glorious master plan? 
  • I pray every day for God to heal my mom, but she just keeps getting worse.  Am I just talking to myself?  Does God even exist?  And, if he does, how could he turn a deaf ear to the cries of his children?  What kind of father does that?

When faced with questions like these, all of the neat philosophical answers to the problem of evil come up short.  They simply don’t have the kind of explanatory power needed to deal with the soul-crushing despair that torments millions of human beings daily.  They may provide a small measure of comfort, but they’re too detached and logical to “work” in the real world.

There are alternative answers, of course.  Most of them are disturbing, to say the least.  Here are a few:

  • There is no God.  The world is meaningless and humanity is an accident.  We are nothing but dust, and to dust we shall return.
  • We are such evil, vile creatures that we only get what we deserve.  Even the so-called “innocent” are disgusting in God’s sight.  It’s a wonder that he doesn’t wipe us out entirely.
  • God created us to watch us suffer.  He is an all-powerful sadist, and we are his deluded, helpless victims.  We tell ourselves otherwise because we’re too weak to face the truth.  Jesus’ “loving father” is the greatest lie ever told to the human race.

From a logical, objective point of view, each of these answers is every bit as good as the ones offered by believers.  In the same way, they fail to offer any comfort or guidance to those who suffer.  In many ways they’re worse than no answer at all.

But there’s another way to look at the question “why does God allow suffering,” one that gains insight by reconsidering the nature of the question at hand.  Here’s what I mean.

There’s Something about Mary

In the early 1980s a philosopher named Frank Jackson published a thought experiment.  In it, a young lady named Mary lived in a room that she was never allowed to leave.  It was furnished completely in black and white, like scenes from old photographs.  She even wore special glasses that made everything appear gray.  One of the most basic of all human experiences, the ability to see the world in color, was denied to her.

Despite this sad condition, Mary was a brilliant scientist.  Her academic specialty was understanding how human beings perceive color.  She knew all the facts about the subject: how light waves effect the eyes; how the optic nerve transfers those impulses to the brain; and how the brain assembles that data to form mental images.

In short, Mary knew all about color, except for one thing: what it actually looked like.

Then, one day, Mary was able to outwit her jailers and escape the black-and-white room.  Running outside, she tore the goggles from her face, and for the first time saw the colors she had studied her entire life as they truly are.

At that moment she gained a special kind of insight, a type that can only be gained by direct experience.  All of us have this kind of knowledge; in fact, we could not be the people who we are without it.  It answers questions like these:

  • What does chocolate taste like?
  • What do flowers smell like?
  • How does it feel to be in love?

Books can’t tell us the answers to these questions.  Neither can scientific experiments or logical arguments.  Some truths can only be known by having a subjective, intensely personal experience.

Perhaps the answer to the problem of evil is like the taste of chocolate or the appearance of colors.  If so, then this would explain the way that some people react to suffering.  Here are two examples of what I mean.

Calm in the Midst of the Storm

There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who helped to hide Jewish people from the Nazis in the 1940s.  Her and her family set up a secret room in their home in which they hid refugees from the Holocaust.   They called this clandestine shelter the “hiding place,” which is also the title of Ten Boom’s best-selling book.

She and her family were discovered after a neighbor turned them in.  Her and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for political dissenters.  Betsie died during their internment, leaving Corrie to face the horrors of Hell alone.

If anyone had reason to question God, it was Corrie Ten Boom.  But she didn’t.  She was able to maintain her faith in the face of overwhelming heartbreak and suffering.  After her release she set up a rehabilitation center to help others who had survived the camps.

In 1947 she was approached by a man she recognized very well.  He had been one of the guards at Ravensbruck; in fact, he was one of the cruelest of them all.  He begged her to forgive him for the atrocities he had committed.  She records her response to him in her book Tramp for the Lord:

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

Corrie Ten Boom forgave the man who had visited such evil and suffering upon her and her sister.  Writing about these events years later, she recounted something her sister Betsie said to her before she died: “there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”

“We Forgive.”

The Amish are a group of pacifist Christians who live primarily in rural areas of Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, though they also have settlements scattered throughout the United States and other nations.  Completely non-violent and shunning much of modern technology, they live simple lives centered on family and community.  They’re also known for their prodigious work ethic and devotion to craftsmanship.  Amish-made furnishings, for example, are prized for their quality and simple beauty.

Most of my readers probably already know these facts.  But I mention them here to set the proper context for the incident I’m about to discuss.

On October 2, 2006, a group of Amish children was attending classes at a church-run school in Lancaster, PA, when a gunman burst into the building.  He shot 10 of the children, all of them girls, before taking his own life.  Five survived their wounds; the rest did not.

Any community would recoil in horror at such news.  For the Amish, whose lives revolve around faith in God and devotion to family, the tragedy was painful beyond words.  Given this, their response to these events was almost unbelievable.  Shortly after the shooting they paid a visit to the gunman’s family members, who lived nearby.  They offered their complete, unconditional forgiveness to the wife and relatives of the man who butchered their children.

Like Corrie Ten Boom, the Amish had every right to denounce God as a fantasy or a monster; who wouldn’t do so after such a horrific event?  But they did just the opposite.  What might have destroyed their faith instead affirmed it.

Some answers can’t be Put into Words

It would seem that both Corrie Ten Boom and the Amish know  answer to the question, “why does God allow suffering.”  But that knowledge is like what Mary discovered when she looked upon the world of color for the first time.  It can’t be wrapped up into a neat, logical response.  Like the taste of chocolate, it can only be understood through having an experience that goes beyond words.

This doesn’t answer the problem of why God lets bad things happen.  But it does reframe the nature of the question, allowing those who suffer to find answers for themselves.  I admit this is all very fuzzy and subjective.  But, then again, so is life, even though we pretend otherwise.  The real answers to the world’s mysteries can only come from the same place they originate: within the human heart and mind.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, then I know how you feel.