The Problem of Suffering—letter to a friend

The Problem of Suffering—letter to a friend



God has always declined to answer this question in a way that will satisfy our intellects—better than that, however,  he did something about it!


Question my friend wrote in an email:

I don’t understand how God, if he is good, continues to let such horrible stuff happen to people. I know people have asked this forever, but it’s still a big problem for me. A lot of people say that, given the amount of evil in the world, God must not exist. Or if he does exist, he must not be good. You read this all the time. I don’t feel comfortable with that, but I don’t know how to answer it either.


My response:

When God created the universe, he very much wanted to have radically free creatures with whom he could interact. How would you like to relate only to robots—or, at best, to people who were preprogrammed to love you? Not nearly as much fun as interacting with people who love you by choice.

But God knew that, if he made people THAT MUCH like himself (remember, we are created “in God’s image”), such creatures would be capable of making catastrophic choices and of breaking off their relationship with him. So he decided even before he created the universe that, should such rebellion/sin happen, he would take upon himself the evil, the sickness, the pain, the sufferingall the consequences of sin that would result from the exercise of radical free will. See Revelation 13:8 and I Peter 1:20, both of which suggest that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world.

It appears that, not only did human beings sin/rebel, but so did a lot of spiritual creatures (Satan, demons, etc.), who helped the humans along in their rebellion. But God never wavered in his determination that humans would be as much like him as possible—completely free, creative, even with authority to call the shots in this world he made for them.

Preventing sin by divine fiat somehow would in the end have led to even greater violence than the observable results of sin that we experience in this world. We human beings, experiencing the results of God’s salvation a trillion years into the future, will be immeasurably happy to say, “I’m SO glad that you didn’t simply quash sin by divine decree, but that you permitted our creaturely freedom to play itself out, even though our suffering was terrible. What we experience now (and forever) is worth every second of what we went through.” Or, in different terms, “Given the choice between going through all that suffering and ending up in this eternal paradise, vs. not being born and therefore not having to endure that pain, I am completely happy to choose the former.” Yes, there has been indescribable pain. But God has suffered with every crying child, every broken heart, every tortured prisoner, every mother wailing over a lost baby—knowing both the physical pain and the emotional pain just as deeply as the people experiencing it. He somehow bears those things within himself, along with the suffering person. Given freely before the creation of the world, this unspeakable grace reached its climax/culmination when the incarnate God was willingly nailed to a cross. In spite of the worst we could do, through that cross he has brought about our reconciliation to him, guaranteeing that no matter how much we sin, how much we rebel, how much we turn our backs on him, the way is still open to him—that is, to the true source of Life and Joy. We stand forgiven, we stand reconciled to God, now and forever.

And through the resurrection of Jesus, God has accomplished immeasurably more than mere forgiveness and reconciliation. He has accomplished OUR resurrections also, by defeating death and the power of sin forever. Although it’s hard to grab onto this truth when we’re in the midst of suffering, it is nevertheless a certainty that, for anyone who wants to accept this salvation through Jesus (we have to make the choice—he won’t coerce us), the time WILL COME when s/he will be able to look back on the greatest suffering s/he ever experienced and say, “Thank you for letting me go through that, for it has revealed to me all the more how much you love me. You have given me eternal life and eternal joy; and all the suffering of the world, including my own suffering and the suffering of those I love and the suffering I caused in other people, is as a live coal in the sea compared to the overwhelming Life and Joy I know now and will know forever.”

This is not a satisfactory rational/intellectual explanation to the dilemma of the suffering of innocent people. God doesn’t address that intellectual question anywhere in scripture. On two occasions in scripture when someone broached that subject—in Job and in Habakkuk—God replied in so many words that “Your mind is too small to understand, so I can’t give you a thorough answer. You just have to trust me.” But, unlike in the world’s religions, which either deny the reality of evil or drastically cheapen it, the good news of Jesus is that he meets the problem head-on: Suffering/evil/darkness is VERY real, but God has done something about it! At infinite cost to himself, he has defeated it while leaving our free wills intact. He has provided the absolute guarantee that, in the end, we will come through it with joy, and we will be able to choose freely to love each other, to love God, and to know the unspeakable pleasure of being loved by God and by each other.

My favorite statement of this spiritual reality is that of Julian of Norwich (b. 1342), who described a personal encounter with Jesus in a vision (the italicized words are what Jesus said to Julian in her vision):

Often I wondered why

by the great foreseeing wisdom of God

the beginning of sin was not hindered:

for then, I thought, all should have been well.


Sin could not be prevented, but plays a crucial part; and all shall be well.


After this the Lord brought to my mind the longing that I earlier had for Him.

And I saw that nothing prevented me but sin.

And so I looked, generally, upon us all, and thought:

If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like our Lord, as He made us.

And thus, in my folly, until this time often I wondered why

by the great foreseeing wisdom of God

the beginning of sin was not prevented:

for then, I thought, all should have been well.

This stirring of mind was much to be forsaken,

but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed greatly for it, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me,

answered by this word and said:


I could not prevent that there should be sin;

but all shall be well, and all shall be well,

and all manner of thing shall be well.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

God hasn’t rationally explained the problem of evil. It is unlikely that our twisted, finite, petty little minds could wrap themselves around anything that cosmic in scope. Some religions supposedly “answer” the problem, most often either (1) by denying that evil exists (e.g., “Good is simply the right hand of God, while evil is the left hand of God”), as in some Eastern religions and sometimes in New Age thought; or (2) by trivializing it (e.g., saying that we can be good enough to make ourselves worthy in God’s sight and earn a place with God in eternal bliss, but failing to deal with the ultimate fate of evil—that’s the basic answer in Islam).

Any religion or philosophy that explains the problem to our intellectual satisfaction, I think, is highly suspect, just as would be a rational, comprehensive explanation for, say, the reason why the universe exists.

Rather, the Biblical witness states that evil indeed exists and is unimaginably ugly and horrible; but that God didn’t just provide human beings with some deep, profound understanding of evil. Rather, he DID something about it—through the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And what he did was so surprising and glorious that we can’t grasp the magnitude of how good the news really is. And he did that at infinite cost to himself in order to confer infinite good to us. He took all evil, all suffering, all pain, all death into himself, and swallowed it up in his love, and freely gave us the benefits of that grace—eternal forgiveness, eternal life, eternal joy. That’s why the story of Jesus is called good news.