It’s one of the oldest and most vexing questions ever asked. Even today, it’s probably the number one hindrance to faith for both believers and unbelievers alike.
In theological terms, it’s called theodicy. The basic question is this: why would a benevolent and all-powerful God allow so much suffering? To put it bluntly, If God really loves us and has the power to do anything, why does this shit keep happening?
Many people have tried to answer this question over the centuries, and many continue to try to answer it. Among the more recent additions to this library are well-known titles like When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold Kushner), The Problem of Pain (C.S. Lewis), Where is God When it Hurts? (Phil Yancey), God of the Oppressed (James Cone), and God’s Problem (Bart Ehrman).
The question is complex, and usually involves discussions about the nature of sin, freewill, and so forth.
The subject can further be divided into the categories of “natural” evil (suffering caused by earthquakes, wildfires and other natural disasters), supernatural evil (caused by the devil and other evil spirits), and human evil.
Others have explored the ways that animal suffering may be different than that of humans, and how people may experience suffering differently depending on their race, gender, or other socioeconomic differences.
For the purposes of this essay, I will limit the discussion to human suffering that can’t be explained by personal sin, or that seems drastically out of proportion to any wickedness on the part of the one who is suffering. In its simplest form, the question is this: Why does God allow innocent suffering?
Among those who believe in a theistic God (a God who has a consciousness that transcends that of His/Her creation), the answers to this question usually fall into one of three categories.
Those in the first category argue that perhaps God isn’t omnipotent after all; that maybe there are some things even God can’t do, and putting an end to suffering is one of these things. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People is probably the most well-known book in this vein.
Others argue that God is indeed all-powerful and loving, but that God allows suffering in order to produce certain results in His/Her creation (people with character that can only be developed through suffering, for example). Lewis’ The Problem of Pain leans in this direction.
A third response says that while God has good reasons for allowing suffering, they are beyond what we, in our limited human logic, can comprehend. This is the basic thrust of Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts?
As might be expected, none of these answers are very satisfying.
The first paints the picture of a God who can be loved and empathized with, but is hardly worthy of worship. If God can’t put an end to our suffering, what kind of God is He/She? Such a God appears to be just one more creature in a universe that lacks any ultimate meaning or purpose.
The second answer is even less attractive. This God appears to be capricious, having the power to end suffering but nonetheless allowing it for some reason that we’re not allowed to know. Such a God can be feared, but is very hard to love. He looks a lot like the frustrated parent who tries to make children behave through threats of punishment, and when asked for a reason, simply says “because I said so!”
The third answer is really no answer at all. God is a mystery; of that we can be pretty certain. But if we have nothing more to say than this, why say anything at all?
I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to such an enormous question. There’s probably nothing much I could say that hasn’t been said before.
Nevertheless, God has revealed some things to me that I think are worth sharing. These have been a great help to me in my spiritual journey; and maybe others can benefit from them as well.
One major revelation came to me in April of 2016, while I was at work. In a vision I saw many people suffering in a concentration camp at Auschwitz. I had seen Schindler’s List years before, but this was far more vivid than any movie; it was as like I was right there, watching in horror as people inhaled the gas and slowly died.
Looking up I saw God, who had taken the form of a large mother bird and was hovering overhead. “Why are you letting this happen?” I asked. “Why don’t you come down here and do something about this?”
Don’t you think I would, if I thought it would make any difference? God said, tears streaming down Her face. But consider what you’re asking me to do. You have seen how useless it is when people use violence. What makes you think it would be any different if I did the same?
The message was clear: even God can’t put an end to suffering through force. In fact, the idea of God “coming down,” as if from somewhere else, is itself bad theology! God is already present among us, as demonstrated so vividly through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
God is present everywhere and in everything, but God’s will can only be carried out by His/Her creation. We (people, animals, and plants) are the only “hands and feet” God has. While God can inspire us to action, we still need to act in order for anything to happen on the physical plane.
A couple weeks later I got another revelation while listening to the Depeche Mode song Blasphemous Rumours. The song describes several examples of human tragedy, concluding with this repeating refrain:
I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours…but it seems like God has a sick sense of humor…and when I die, I expect to see Him laughing.
I had heard this song before, and had not had any emotional reaction to it; but on this day, it made me weep bitterly.
I wept over two things: the fact that someone could so misunderstand the loving God I knew personally, and the pain of those affected by needless tragedy.
My sadness was quickly averted, however, by a vision of the continuing cycles of life in nature. I came to see that physical death is necessary in order for life on this planet to continue; one life ends so another may begin. There’s nothing necessarily tragic or unfair about this; it’s just a fact of life.
Death will always seem tragic, of course, when it happens to someone very young or in the “prime” of their life; or when it’s accompanied by violence, pain, or great suffering. But our grief is made worse because we’re so attached to physical forms.
Indeed, we’re so focused on this that we often miss the eternal spirit that lives in all things.
When a body dies, we think we have lost that person (or animal); but in reality, only the physical form has been lost. The inner essence (soul, spirit, mind, and heart) continues to live on in another form, and if we are open to it, we may be able to sense – and even communicate with – this enduring essence.
None of this, of course, makes our grief go away. Mourning is a process, and can only be managed one day at a time; and our understanding of death and suffering will probably always be incomplete.
When we come to know God personally, however, it makes a big difference. We realize that we’re not alone; that we can be in a relationship with a power far greater than ourselves, who loves us more than we can imagine, who lives within us, and who will never leave us. It’s my hope that by sharing this love with others, I may in some small way be a part of this world’s healing.
(Coming Soon: “When We All Get to Heaven”: The Incomparable Glory of Life in God’s Presence)