How can a good almighty God allow suffering?

Common Objections to the Bible

How can God allow Suffering?

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The basic problem is, "how can God be good and omnipotent (all-powerful) and have allowed evil & suffering to exist?"  To begin answering this, we need to define some key terms: evil, suffering, omnipotence, good, happiness and free will:

Defining Key Terms

Evil – What is evil?  A common misunderstanding about evil is seeing it as a being, a substance or an entity.  But things are not evil in themselves; for example a sword is not evil; evil is the will, the choice, which puts wrong order into the physical world of things and acts.  The Bible teaches that everything God created was good (Genesis 1).  Even the devil was created good; "the corruption of the best things are the worst things."  Likewise, physical evil is not a thing; lack of power or sight in a paralyzed limb or blinded eye is evil, but not the limb or cataract itself. 

So although evil is real it is not a thing, but rather disorder, wrong relationship, a nonconformity between God’s will and our will, rather as darkness is not a thing but the absence of light.  God did not make it; we did. 

– So God may be off the hook for the existence of evil, but what about suffering when there seems to be no direct human responsibility, cancer for example?  magnetTo answer this, it helps to remember the firmly established psychological principle of psychosomatic unity.  This says that we are not souls imprisoned in bodies like ghosts in machines, but we are soul-body unities. 

So naturally, when our soul is alienated from God through sin, the body will share the consequences.  This is basically what Genesis 3 says, adding that nature is also affected.  It is like three rings hanging from a magnet; the magnet is God, the three rings hanging down are the soul, the body and nature.  When the soul rebelled against God, the magnetic force flowing from God sustaining the connection broke. 

After a lifetime of studying pain in breakthrough leprosy research, Dr Paul Brandt concluded that pain is a gift to tell us that something is wrong. Leprosy patients, having lost all sensation of pain, unknowingly walk a path of destroying their body. As C.S. Lewis says, pain is ‘God’s megaphone’ informing us that something is drastically wrong with human society. In medicine, pain is usually helpful alarm signal letting us know that we have been making some wrong lifestyle decisions. Unfortunately, most of the time humans don’t listen to the message of pain but try to block the pain without finding out the root cause and changing behavior accordingly. This simply makes pain more intolerable and intense. Furthermore, pain research tells us that physiologically, pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin; much is determined by our perception. Our attitude to our pain makes a huge difference in how intense and harmful it is.

Free Will – Some would ask, "Couldn’t an all-powerful God have created in which there was genuine human freedom and no sin?" Actually that’s exactly what God created, a fully good world; evil’s source is not God’s power but man’s freedom.  Because that would have been a world without humans, a world without hate but also without love and relationship.  Love too proceeds only from free will.  Animals cannot love, they can only show instinctive affection. Love and relationship are something that are essential to the very nature of God, just like justice, omniscience and truth.

"But," it could be said, "couldn’t God have created a world with free will where no sin was possible?"   But a world where "no-sin" is freely possible is necessarily also a world where sin is possible.  But that is a meaningless self-contradiction, rather like asking why God didn’t colorless color.  God is divinely perfect in his power, but as C.S. Lewis said, "Nonsense does not cease to be nonsense when we add the worlds ‘God can’ before it." 

God’s Goodness – Goodness is not kindness (the will to free someone from pain).  Sometimes, to be good is not to be kind.  Dentists, surgeons, athletic trainers, teachers and parents all know that.  If goodness meant only kindness, then God would not be good.  But the more deeply we love someone, the more more we go beyond mere kindness to achieve their best; we hope for not just freedom from pain but also freedom from vice and ignorance and sin.  Our modern society is so focused on instant-gratification and avoiding pain; ancient philosophers understood better that wisdom comes through suffering. 

Related to this is understanding the difference between the shallow, popular meaning of ‘happiness’ and the deeper philosophical meaning of ‘happiness’.  The shallow meaning is a subjective temporary feeling, like winning the lottery, sex, ephoria, chance or good fortune.  However the older, deeper meaning of happiness is an objective state beyond simply contentment to long-term, deep well-being.  It comes internally from wisdom and virtue not passing fortune.  As Abraham Heschel said, "The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?"  Deep happiness is in the spirit, like an anchor that holds fast and calm on the bottom even while storms rage on the surface.1 

Reflecting a little on these key terms a little helps to dissolve the problem. 

Our Finite Perspective

As a final point, we need to remember that if there is a God who made the universe, it is actually very logical to expect that he goes beyond our comprehension. Since God is perfect and cannot contradict himself, logic is a helpful tool to understand God, but from our limited perspective we need to accept that sometimes we do not know all the logical factors to consider. He sees additional factors we cannot see.

Dimensions are a helpful analogy.  Imagine a two-dimensional flat world like a piece of paper, where people only experienced length and width but not height.  From these "flat-landers’" limited perspective, the only possible way to get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ on the paper would be a straight line.  If however an outsider of three dimension stuck his pencil through the paper at point ‘a’ and lifting it out again stuck it through at point ‘b’, this would seem impossible to flat-landers.   In the same way, a creator God would be beyond our limited four dimensions (as physics indeed acknowledges the potential existence of more dimensions) yet still able to intervene in our four dimensions. 

Sometimes the most important part of knowledge is realizing how little we know. If there is a God, we should expect him to see a whole lot more factors than we can see from our very limited and finite perspective. So even if it seems to us that a loving God could not bring enough good out of our history to justify the suffering, we should logically expect that there may be additional factors we aren’t seeing yet that would make it ‘all worth it’

Who has a Right to Say?

Ironically, the people who challenge God for allowing so much suffering are often not the people who have experienced the most unjust suffering personally. There are countless stories of people who have suffered unspeakable atrocities and have found redemptive meaning through their suffering. Romanian Jew-turned-Christian Richard Wurmbrand spent eight years in prison, three years of which in solitary confinement twelve feet underground with no light or sound. He wrote:

We no longer believed about God and Christ and angels because Bible verses said it. We didn’t remember Bible verses anymore. We remembered about God because we experienced it. With great humility we can say with the apostles, "What we have seen with our eyes, what we have heard with our ears, what we have touched with our own fingers, this we tell to you.

On release, he was warned not to preach, but he resumed his work with the underground church and was arrested again in 1959 and sentenced to 25 years. He was tortured physically and mentally, having the soles of his feet beaten to the bone, made to eat his faeces, scarred for life. His wife spent three years in penal labor and his son was expelled repeatedly from colleges because his father was a political prisoner. These deeply personal experiences of suffering earned Wurmbrand the right to say that God can bring good out of suffering. There are countless other such witnesses; Dutch Christian Corrie ten Boom was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for rescuing Jews, and her sister died there; Chinese Brother Yun, the list goes on.

Jesus: Meaning out of Suffering

In many ways, Jesus is the answer to the riddle of suffering.  Jesus suffered more unjust suffering than almost anyone on earth- if anyone has earned the right to accuse God it would be Jesus.  He was born into the lower class of an oppressed people, probably considered illegitimate because of his miraculous birth.  He was constantly threatened by the religious authorities and after an unjust trial of false allegations he died the most horrible death imaginable.  The scriptures say that this Jesus, was the "Word of God", "in very nature God" (Phil 2:6) and "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15).  Through Jesus, God was saying, "Yes, I have earned the right more than any of you to say that suffering can be worth it."  Jesus showed that God can give suffering redemptive value, he can accomplish things in our lives through suffering which otherwise couldn’t happen. 

As disciples of Jesus we can say,

"for I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. " (Rom 8:18)


"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." (2 Cor 4:17)

Following this great Teacher’s example, we too can find that:

"just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows." (2 Cor 1:5) 


The Existence of Suffering:
A Universal Problem

A lot of times atheists and agnostics attack religion without considering seriously considering the weaknesses of their own foundations.  For example, Walter Kaufman casually mentioned:

"For atheism and polytheism there is no special problem of suffering"

Suffering is perplexing within every philosophy, worldview and religion, but far more problematic in atheism.  The real problem of suffering is not an abstract philosophical problem but a very personal problem – how do I personally make sense of suffering?  Atheism and agnosticism offers no meaning or purpose behind suffering, no solution to the problem of pain, the unavoidable conclusion is that life is ultimately absurd and meaningless, whatever fantasies we try to make.  Atheism leads inevitably to nihilism and despair.  My own uncle chose this path of rejecting religion and ended up committing suicide. 

Different Religions and
Worldviews on Suffering

There is one more important issue with worldviews and suffering: How successfully does each worldview motivate people to work to eradicate unjust suffering in the world?  Does a religion of philosophy make people passively ignore injustice or does it give them courage to stand up against it?  Let’s look at what different worldview say about this:

With atheism and agnosticism, people can certainly choose to fight injustice if they feel like it, but when the going gets tough there’s no outside reason to hope for success, there’s no foundation to prevent cynicism and despair.  Ultimately if there is no transcendent meaning to life, one might as well just get the most out of it personally – this was Neitzche’s clear logical conclusion. Likewise, atheism and agnosticism provide no foundation for believing in a transcendent moral order. Building from atheism, any ‘morality’ ultimately is simply personal preference. Champions of justice like William Wilberforce fighting to abolish the slave trade could not have sustained a lifetime zeal against slavery if they didn’t believe in a transcendent absolute moral order.

Simply put, Hinduism teaches that whoever suffers deserves it from a previous life, a philosophy which supports such structural evils as the caste system and injustice against the poor.  Neither does it give individuals any drive to solve suffering or escape suffering.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by desire, and the answer is to extinguish all desire and become a zero.  This philosophy likewise does not encourage any active fight against causes of suffering in the world.

According to traditional Islam, both sin and suffering are decreed by God (57:22-23), and come directly as punishment for our own sins (42:30).  People’s every action, including sin, are ordained by God.  This overwhelming predestination doesn’t naturally support an active fight against suffering, but again leads people to conclude that suffering people deserve what they’re getting.  Furthermore, the emphasis in religious piety which earns salvation is primarily religious rituals rather than heart issues.

In contrast, Jesus’ disciples have a remarkable foundation for struggling against sources of suffering with hope.  Being confident that God has given us salvation as a gift and has us securely in his grip, we are freed to joyfully pour out or lives to bring God’s justice to earth:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (Rom 8:35)

With a certain hope of heaven ahead, we can overcome cynicism and despair.  History gives vivid testimony that disciples of Jesus have been the pioneers at fighting injustice and relieving suffering.  Motivated by her faith, Florence Nightengale founded the whole discipline of nursing care.  William Wilberforce (1759-1833) dedicated his life to the eradication of the slave trade in the British Empire, and after decades of leading this unpopular struggle he saw on his deathbed the abolishment of slavery.  Similarly, Thomas Clarkson forsook a promising career to dedicate his life to abolishing the slave trade. Granville Sharp was largely responsible for founding Sierra Leone as a colony for freed slaves. Pastor Martin Luther King’s courageous fight against racial discrimination was rooted in his faith, and he eventually paid for it with his life. John Wesley, William Booth and Charles Finney were all Christian leaders who emphasized social justice and serving the poorest classes of society and strongly opposed slavery.  Besides these all around the world in Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist countries the first hospitals and schools were usually established by committed followers of Jesus.

Recommended Reading

The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror by Os Guinness
The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis
The Gift of Pain by Dr Paul Brandt

Related Articles:

Is the doctrine of Original Sin unjust?

Does the Bible encourage violence?

How can God be loving and send people to hell?
Is God unjust and cruel in the Bible?

  1. taken largely from Peter Kreeft on ‘The Problem of Evil’, professor of philosophy at Boston College

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