We are beginning to read from the Book of Job in daily Mass. One of its core issues is the problem of suffering and why God allows it. If God is omnipotent and omniscient then how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a woman is raped, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?
The problem of evil cannot be answered simply; it is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says that “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Rom 8:28). But how this is often difficult for us to see. Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask why. And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many.
As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but few are forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability to even ask the right questions. In the end, though, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us and we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.
One of the most perplexing aspects of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America as a whole, there is much less suffering than in many other parts of the world. And even here, some go through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed while others suffer crippling disease, sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. And while a lot of our suffering comes from our own poor choices and/or lack of self-control, some of it seems unrelated. The most difficult suffering to accept is that inflicted on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no ill effects: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, those who exploit the poor or unsuspecting for their own gain exploited, etc.
Suffering is hard to explain simply or to merely accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. When interacting with those who are deeply disturbed by the problem of evil, a healthy dose of sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility will be more fruitful than forceful rebuttal.
A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. (Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.)
- The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Although we only get a brief glimpse of the Garden of Eden, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it and that Adam and Eve caused their entry, despite being warned that this would be the result of eating from the forbidden tree.
- Even in Eden the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked.
- In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there. We were made to love; love requires freedom; and freedom requires choice. The yes of love must permit of the no of sin. In our rebellious no both we and the world unraveled, ushering in death and chaos. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, the vast majority of it by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin—Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than to serve in the real paradise.
- The link between human freedom and evil/suffering also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But there is mystery here, too, for the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
- The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. There, God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit to test Job’s faith and strengthen it. In the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings; it is a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
- The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
- Does this mean that those who suffer more are in need of more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that greater glory is awaiting them. The Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but endure it with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
- Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal when many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exalted, when the rich will go away empty and poor be filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich and well-fed, unaccustomed to suffering. The only chance the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
- As to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering we caused by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.
I’m sure you can add to these points. Be careful with the problem of evil and suffering; there are mysterious dimensions that must be respected. The best approach in talking to others may be with an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with it. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but the answer appeals to reason. Justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a little. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would “pat” answers, which could alienate them.