The Odyssey of Theodicy
If God exists—and if He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good—why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?
That’s a fair question and it is one that has caused no small amount of consternation for people throughout the centuries. The logic of that question goes like this: if God is all powerful, then the existence of pain and suffering must mean that He is not good, or if God is good, then the existence of pain and suffering must mean that God just isn’t powerful enough to deal with it. But either way you slice it, God cannot be all powerful and good because of the existence of pain and suffering. That seeming paradox sits at the heart of most atheists’ refusal to believe in God. It has led some people to renounce their faith in God altogether. It tends to be the question that many Christians shy away from and that other Christians think has an easy answer—that easy answer being “sin.”
Over the years I’ve found myself in both camps. At times I’ve shied away from that question, and other times I’ve opted for the simple answer. I remember wrestling with this question and the various answers given for it while I was in high school. I remember settling on the easy answer and pointing to it for years. After all this time it’s still a tempting answer to give, but the answer to this question is not as simple as I once supposed. Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? It’s because of sin. There is pain and suffering in the world, not because God created this world that way, but because of sin. If Adam and Eve had never disobeyed God, then there would have been no pain or suffering at all. But their disobedience brought all the causes for pain and suffering with it; from tornadoes and earthquakes, to mosquitos and spiders, to warfare and divorce.
There is just one problem with that answer. It doesn’t deal with the complexity of pain and suffering. Nor is it a Biblically accurate answer to the problem of pain and suffering.
First, there is the truth that pain and suffering can be, and often are, things for our good that God has built into the fabric of this creation. When most people envision an ideal life it would be a life free from physical pain. Without thinking of the consequences, we imagine how great it would be to never feel physical pain. No more aching knees, no more stubbed toes, no headaches. Doesn’t that sound great?
In actuality, a life in this creation free from physical pain would be a living nightmare. One in a million people are born with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain or CIP. People who are born with this condition appear completely normal except for the fact that they can’t feel pain. People who are diagnosed with this disease rarely live past the first two years of life, let alone survive into adulthood. Since they can’t feel pain, they can’t alert their parents when they are hurt or sick and many ultimately die from life threatening, but potentially treatable illnesses. Babies who are born with CIP often damage themselves unintentionally by chewing their tongues, cheeks or hands. In later life, sufferers have to take precautions against bruising and being burned by hot objects – although sufferers can often distinguish between warm and cold they do not feel the painful stimulus of heat. While it can seem counterintuitive, the ability to feel pain is actually a gift from God. For as much as we don’t like pain, it often serves to protect us from harm.
Second, while Jesus had many opportunities to address the causes of pain and suffering he was careful to distinguish between those times when sin was to blame and when sin was not the answer. In the case of the woman caught in adultery recorded in John 8, at the end of that encounter Jesus saved her from stoning, but told her to go and sin no more. Her suffering in that moment was a direct result of her sin.
But there are other occasions where Jesus gives a much more unexpected answer to the existence of pain and suffering. Take Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind recorded in John 9. Upon seeing the blind man the disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The popular notion in Jesus’ day was that pain and suffering were direct results of a person’s sin or the sin of their parents. But Jesus doesn’t lay the blame at his or their feet. Neither does Jesus answer the way so many Christians would today. Jesus doesn’t say “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this man was born blind as a result of living in this fallen world.” Instead, Jesus’ enigmatic reply was, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, this man’s lifetime of suffering in the dark was so that God could do something greater through him when the time came. When Jesus restored his sight he also gave him a greater gift; the formerly blind man now saw Jesus not just with his physical eyes, but with the eyes of faith. He came to know Jesus as God and worshipped him. And through that sign many others put their faith in Jesus.
Luke records another surprising occasion where Jesus encounters some who were apparently felt an air of superiority over the Galileans who met their unfortunate demise. Those who brought up the death of the Galileans murdered by Pilate were operating under the faulty assumption that those who died in that manner died because of their sin. On that occasion Jesus said, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
Jesus goes one step further in his reply and moves beyond the example of human-caused pain and suffering and addresses an accidental tragedy, the falling of the tower of Siloam. Notice how different Jesus’ answer was compared to how Pat Robertson would have answered? In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, Pat Robertson said that it was God’s punishment on America for the sin of abortion. While it’s tempting to blame ourselves or others for the pain and suffering we experience, Jesus doesn’t play that game. Do you think that those in New Orleans in 2005 were worse sinners than other Americans because they suffered in this way? Jesus would unequivocally say, “No, but unless you repent, you too will perish.” Accidents are accidents. God doesn’t inflict tragedy on the worst of the worst and spare the righteous. But every encounter with death should drive us to our knees in repentance, because the finality of human death is a direct result of the fall. Had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God they would not have been tossed from the Garden in Eden. Had they remained in the Garden they would have had full access to the Tree of Life. Death would never have been something to fear.
As unsatisfying as it can be to hear, there are some questions that God does not answer this side of eternity. How could a loving God allow the tower in Siloam to fall and crush eighteen people to death? Was it because they were sinful and deserved it? Jesus really doesn’t answer the question other than to say it wasn’t because they were more sinful than anyone else. And that is where this question about pain and suffering hits a dead end. When tragedy struck Job he wasn’t privy to the earlier dialogue between God and Satan. Job didn’t know that God saw him as blameless and upright. Job didn’t know that God allowed Satan to take away his possessions, children and health. All Job knew was his pain and suffering. And when Job’s miserable friends arrived on the scene they spent their time doing what we are so often tempted to do when confronted with pain and suffering. They spent their time trying to diagnose Job’s misfortune.
They ultimately blamed Job. Job for his part blamed God. But when God finally came to Job He didn’t come with answers to the “why” of his pain and suffering. God said, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding” (Job 38:2-4). Job wisely laid his hand over his mouth and refused to speak, but after enduring Job’s earlier questioning God continues. “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:7-8). After that exchange Job repented and then God restored him. But like Jesus, God never gave Job an answer for all of his pain and suffering. And that’s OK.
Now place yourself in Job’s shoes for a moment. The answers he was seeking, and the answers we often seek can do nothing to erase the past or our pain and suffering. Only God can take our pain and suffering and give us joy in their place. The book of Job ends with these words: “And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of his first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third, Keren-happuch. And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days” (Job 42:12-17).
So to go back to the beginning; if God exists—and if He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good—why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? I hope by now you can see there is no one simple answer because our experience of pain and suffering in this world in complex.
First, some pain and suffering is a natural feature of this creation (though we have the promise it won’t be a feature of the new creation to come – see Revelation 21:4). When I run too far or too fast my legs start to get sore. That soreness is the warning system God built into my body so that I don’t cause myself even more harm. That pain also helps when it comes to treating any injury that I’ve sustained. Because I can feel it, I can help a doctor determine where an injury has occurred and its relative severity. Some pain and suffering that we experience here is for our good. It is a gift from God.
Second, some pain and suffering is a direct result of actual sin. A child who is suffering through her parent’s divorce knows the exact cause of her pain. The pain she is experiencing has been brought on her by the sin of her parents who chose to break the vows they made to one another before God. Knowing the cause of the pain makes it no less tragic. Nor should it be a cause for self-righteousness on our part because we know that we all sin in many and various ways. This pain and suffering also should drive us to our knees to repent of the many ways we have sinned against God and one another.
Third, some pain and suffering is accidental; it’s not caused by one particular sin or another. It is simply the result of living in a finite and physical world. When pain and suffering of this sort happens it isn’t because of the particular level of sin that someone has built up in their lives it just is. Like the falling of the tower in Siloam it is tragic and it should remind us of our ultimate dependence upon God for every moment of our lives.
Fourth, some pain and suffering has no satisfactory answer that we can ever pinpoint. Most of our pain and suffering winds up in this category even if it touches on one of the others above. We crave answers, even though those answers can never fully satisfy us. Most often in this case we find ourselves like Job trying to justify ourselves and blame someone, even if that someone is God himself, in an effort to get out from underneath that suffering.
What Job knew, and what the wisest among us discover at one point or another, is that an answer to this question isn’t what we really need or even what we are after. What we need is a God who doesn’t abandon us in our pain and suffering. What we find in Jesus is just this. Jesus came, not giving easy answers, but walking with people through their suffering. He wept with Mary and Martha even though he knew he would bring Lazarus back to them. Jesus didn’t shy away from the political or religious outcasts of his day. He met them in their suffering. He ate and drank with them. And in doing all that Jesus shouldered their burdens and carried them himself. God doesn’t promise us answers to every difficult question we could ever think to ask. He does us one better. In Jesus, God comes to us and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).