May 22, 2015

The God, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Problem of Pain and Suffering

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[intro]“If the universe is so bad… how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute [the universe] to the activity of a wise and good Creator?” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

“A Christian must wrestle with the mystery of evil, the character of God, and hope for/work toward the eventual defeat of evil.”—Christopher Wright, The God I Don’t Understand[/intro]

I recently came across a spirited debate online implicating God as either unjust or nonexistent because of the truly bad things in our world. While I chose not to engage because Facebook can be a terrible platform for exchanging complex ideas, the thread stuck in my mind long after I closed my computer. I couldn’t help feeling uneasy after reading the comments that problematized Christianity in the wake of evil and pain. Perhaps this is because honesty, I too am often floored by this same problem.


We all know that bad things happen. Individually, life begins with a measure of agony in childbirth. At life’s end, dying can often be excruciating. In the meantime, we experience all sorts physical, mental, and emotional maladies. Collectively, our world knows unspeakable suffering. Seemingly countless lives are claimed each year from moral evils like genocide or human trafficking and from natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes.

Since evil and pain is problematic experientially and existentially, a profound question arises for Christian theism; if God exists as all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much wrong with our world?

This haunting question requires us to honestly consider the intellectual and experiential problems that evil and suffering present to the faith. While an intellectual objections to badness finds us demanding answers, experiencing pain and evil finds us demanding relief. For the sake of this post, I want to speak to intellectual issues. If you’re experiencing the trauma of pain and evil, I would recommend finding someone to actively listen and mourn with you instead of reading a blog post.


While there are admittedly problems that seem totally out of our control, a lot of human suffering has been self-inflicted. Individually and systemically, our race exponentially produces poverty, pollution, violence, and perversion. At the same time, we hate the thought of God imposing Himself on us and forcing us to do His will because we value our autonomy above all.

Most would agree with C.S. Lewis’ when he said that if God forced us into obedience and love it would be akin to cosmic puppetry or cosmic rape. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis said:

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself …the possibility of pain is inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet.

We want a perfect existence and our freedom at the same time, but unfortunately we cannot have it both ways. Instead, the reality is that a sovereign and all-knowing God has paradoxically granted us free will. Given this choice and that humanity rebelled against God, and the fact that we live in a world of very real consequences, we earthlings have made a very messy bed that we now have to sleep in. Perhaps the most productive thing we can do, instead of directing our outrage at a God we might vaguely believe in, is to proactively resist evil and pain and fight to stamp it out wherever possible. Sadly, many people who complain about badness lack the motivation and follow-through to eradicate it.


What if badness isn’t supposed to make sense—apart from God’s redemption— because by nature, it is nonsense? Since there are many things we don’t and can’t understand about God and reality, perhaps this incomprehension isn’t due to Christianity/the Bible’s shortcomings, but rather because of human limitations tackling something ultimately beyond us.

Granted, we’re told that Satan’s rebellion caused evil and that humanity’s rebellion introduced it into our existence. But, we’re still puzzled because we never get exhaustive and satisfying answers to the “why” and “how” and “what” of evil and pain. In his book, The God I Don’t Understand, theologian Christopher Wright points out, “the Bible’s silence … on the ultimate origin of evil seems all the more significant, and not merely accidental … God has chosen in his wisdom not to give us an answer.” Wright supposes that evil cannot really be understood because evil has no proper place in creation: “the final truth of evil is that evil does not make sense.” I wonder if this is because only good and ordered things are reasonable and the chaos of sin and dysfunction is necessarily too off-base to be meaningful or rational.


This past summer, I attended the funeral of a little boy that I knew whose precious life was cut short. Needless to say, the ceremony left none of us with dry eyes, regardless of what we believed about the afterlife. I’m not just trying to tug the heart strings; rather, I want share an observation. My point is that if someone attending the funeral had rejected faith in God, they wouldn’t have been spared from the heartache. Whether we were atheists or believers, we all found ourselves grieving and searching for answers. Disbelief couldn’t exempt anyone from very real and visceral pain, but it could easily rob someone of the opportunity to fight for hope in the midst of it.

No matter the ideological camp we come from, when we encounter badness, it universally rattles our cage. In addition to the suffering itself, pain and evil produce existential insecurity about the future and what we believe about the nature of reality. So at the end of the day, badness is actually everyone’s problem.


In the meantime, pain and evil can be redemptive. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis asserts that unlike pleasure, pain can lead us toward God’s goal for the good of humanity: renouncing our self-sufficiency so that we can surrender to God and put His will above our own. Lewis poignantly remarked:

We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Suffering reminds us that, apart from God, we do not have the resources to cope with horrific evils, shattering our self-sufficiency. So we cry out for answers and deliverance. We can cry out to the universe, we can bemoan organized religion, or we can attempt to subdue our cries with substance or consumption. But the cries that are productive are those cries directed to the One who hears them, empathizes with them, and ultimately delivers us from them. The Gospel tells us that at the cross, there was a collision between evil, good, and God’s plan for redemption.


Scripture puts forth lament, protest, and anger at evil as appropriate responses and consistently explains that God is bent on destroying evil, not explaining it. Many texts (e.g. Jeremiah 15, Job 19, Lamentations 2, and Psalm 88) show us that God not only understands our pain and outrage at evil, but that He encourages us to express it directly to Him. The Gospel essentially says that God’s understanding of our pain isn’t merely intellectual, He has lived our pain and endured our evil. Speaking of Jesus, Hebrews 4:15-16 beautifully says:

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus doesn’t just understand, He empathizes. But there’s more. Jesus doesn’t just empathize as a co-sufferer, He redeems and eventually restores as a healing and atoning savior. In the late chapters of Revelation, after John tells of the defeat of Satan, the apostle describes a vision of a new heaven and earth that resurrected bodies will perfectly inhabit. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). This deliverance from pain, can lead us away from despair, ultimately toward hope and praise.

While the coexistence of evil alongside a benevolent and omnipotent God is something we cannot fully make sense of, the Bible still has much to say on the topic, particularly in how it calls for strong reactions against evil. Bad things are bad, and they’re bad for everyone, not just Christians. Further, bad things are mysterious too. Even so, scripture teaches that bad things can be redemptive and will ultimately be redeemed by a powerful and empathic God who will have the last word over the bad and the ugly.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV

Image Credit: trokilinochhi

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