The problem of pain


How can God be both good and Almighty if there is suffering?

I always assumed that this question was simply a gimmick, a clever excuse used by atheists instead of the other real reasons why they do not believe. Something similar to the "can an almighty God create a stone that is too heavy for Him to lift?" logical fallacy. (By the way, the answer to that question is "yes". :-) The real reason that it seems contradictory, is that the term "almighty" is poorly defined. The biblical concept of God's might is that He can do everything that He wants to do. So if He would make a stone too heavy for Himself to lift, it is not "too heavy" because He no longer has the power to lift it, but because He does not want to lift it.) I had little patience for such an obvious "trying to be clever" question, since it was very clear to me from the Bible that everybody have sinned (Rom.3:10-24) and are guilty before God and that there is actually no such thing as "good people" to whom bad things can happen.

However, recently, after being challenged by a close friend on this, as well as looking at a debate between an atheist and christian apologist, I realised that for many people this question of God not doing anything to prevent "innocents" from suffering, is actually real; real enough to keep them from believing in Him. The apologist could answer all the intellectual questions of the atheist convincingly, but did not answer the anguish of the atheist that was expressed by this question.

There are a number of answers to the "question of pain". Or "why do bad things happen to good people?" However, I realised that each of the answers I had, were mostly unsatisfactory (at least when considered as the only answer). They are all partially true, but somehow miss the crux of the matter if seen in isolation:

  • The ultimate answer: the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

    Everything already said, pales in relation to this. God did not simply see us suffer and remained uninvolved, He "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8). "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-3, 14). "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, ... And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:15-17). God became one of us and experienced our suffering and temptations first-hand (Hebrew 4:15). "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Hebrews 2:14-15). By his death He took all our transgressions on Himself (Isaiah 53), He experienced the full anguish of death, but also the full anguish of separation from God (Psalm 22) (which is what hell truly is; being eternally separated from the Source of all that is good), but not only that, He rose from death in order not only to destroy the evil one, but to demonstrate that death is, after all, not the final reality. This was foretold by the Jewish prophets (e.g. Isaiah 53), this was witnessed by more than 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), none of which ever changed their testimony, even when killed for it. Now it is perfectly possible to believe an untruth so strongly that you are willing to die for it as long as you do not know that it is a lie, but nobody is so foolish as to die for something that he knows to be not true. This is the true "good news" (gospel/euangellion) of the New Testament; the one point where Christianity either stands or falls: "And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). All religions claim to be ways for us to reach God (or "Nirvana") by somehow bridging the gap. If we do or understand or feel a certain way, we will reach the goal. However, the message of every other religion is independent of the messenger. It did not have to be the Buddha who taught Buddhism, it did not have to be Moses who received Torah, it did not have to be Mohamed who received the Koran. There are much overlap in the truths taught in the different religions. But never, apart from Jesus of Nazareth, did God actually enter the suffering of this world in order to destroy it. Jesus, who was the only true innocent to ever live, the only Jew to ever keep the whole of Torah without sin, experienced the most awful rejection and punishment possible, in our stead. Without Christ Himself and what He did, there is no Christianity.

    Yes, so-called "Christians" have over the centuries changed "Christianity" into a religion, with rules and regulations of what we should do to please God, or what we should know to please Him or what we should feel to please Him... then it becomes just another religion like all the others, but at the same time it looses the One who showed how God dealt with suffering and pain in this world. Every one of the previous "answers" to the problem of pain is dealt with in Jesus the Messiah. He dealt with our sin, by taking the full punishment of our sin on Himself (Romans 6:23), so that we could go free. He dealt with the devil by taking away any legal grounds he had on earth or on us. By Messiah becoming one of us and being punished unfairly by us acting under Satan's authority, Satan no longer has any right to accuse us before God. Before Jesus, our sin gave him that right. Jesus took the curse (death and suffering) that fell on all of creation, on Himself. By overcoming death, Jesus demonstrated that all suffering is temporary and that He will come back to restore all things to the way they were meant to be before sin entered the world. He showed us the character of God, that He is holy and without sin, that His law (Torah) is true and good, that God is able to do what seemed impossible: punish the sin and yet forgive the sinners, that we can trust God's promises. Since Jesus fulfilled so many promises of who the Messiah was going to be and do, we can trust God that the remaining promises will also be fulfilled in the right time. Since Jesus was just and compassionate, we can trust God that the final judgement (over those who never had the opportunity to know Jesus) will also be just and compassionate.

  • Religions give different answers to the problem of pain. Some of these are the same as what is found in the Bible. For some (e.g. Hinduism, current suffering of "innocents" are the result of their bad karma from previous lives... they are not suffering unfairly after all! For some (e.g. Judaism), the answer lies in the future restoration of all things by God "when Messiah comes". Some Jewish writers even claim that the only explanation after all, is that God is actually not almighty, that suffering is not really the result of human sin and God's anger about it, but simply because He is unable to do anything. For some (e.g. Islam), God's will is inscrutable and we just have to accept suffering or die fighting... and of course He will reward those who serve Him. In Buddhism, it is by living a live without desires, without happiness, but also without sadness, that will lead to us escaping the cycle of suffering. But only in Jesus of Nazareth do we actually find that God entered into our suffering and dealt with the root cause of it all -- our sin.

    Recently I found a very short, but powerful answer to this question on the web. A longer, more philosophical, but very powerful answer can be found on Win Corduan's Blog.