What’s the deal with suffering?
Alright, if you’re reading this you might want to get a cup of tea and find a comfy chair, this is going to be a long one, but then it is quite a big issue. (I’m just going to say up front that much of this is taken from a chapter in Andrew Wilson’s brilliant book If God, Then What? Well, well worth a read).
As part of our Foundations series, on Sunday 6th and 13th May I’m going to be preaching on suffering. For obvious reasons this isn’t something we like to think about very much. However, everyone who has ever lived has had to face suffering in some form, so it is an important subject. In the two sermons we will be focusing on the impact of suffering on our individual lives and our response to it. We will see that, perhaps surprisingly, for Christians suffering is part of the package we embrace when we surrender our lives to Jesus. Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising given that we follow the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and are called to embrace his crucified life as our own. More of that to follow in a couple of weeks…
To start though, I wanted to lay a bit of the groundwork, to take a step back and look at some of the bigger questions around suffering. How do we square a God of infinite love and kindness with the world of terrible suffering around us? Why would this God allow things to carry on like this? Doesn’t he watch the news? Doesn’t he see what’s going on in Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea, Ukraine, Somalia, Yemen, [insert name of country here]?
These are thorny, difficult, and emotional questions that affect each of us personally in different ways. The existence of evil and suffering is a problem for Christians to face and grapple with. Many people see the evil and suffering in the world around us and conclude that God cannot exist, at least not the all-good, all-powerful God presented in the Bible. However, I want to suggest that the existence of evil and suffering, rather than disproving the God of the Bible, is actually evidence for Him. Let me explain.
The premise of the argument goes like this;
“There can’t possibly be a God who is all-good and all-powerful because there is so much suffering and evil in the world. Maybe he is out there somewhere and he wants to do something about it but he can’t, in which case he’s not all-powerful. Or maybe he doesn’t even want to do anything about it, in which case he’s not all-good. Either way, because there is so much evil and suffering in the world, the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible cannot exist.”
This is a powerful and logical argument, however it holds within it two problematic assumptions. Firstly that if this God existed he would do something about evil and suffering in a way that we could see, in a way that we would understand, essentially in the way we would do it. Secondly it assumes that God hasn’t done anything about evil and suffering (more on that to follow too…). I don’t think either of these assumptions are correct, and although the argument is a challenge, I don’t think it’s the final philosophical nail in God’s coffin. Or even a nail at all for that matter.
What’s wrong with the world?
If you were to go into town on Saturday afternoon, sit outside Starbucks with a caramel latte and ask people as they sit near you “what do you think is wrong with the world?”, you would get a range of answers. Some people would give you a silly answer (maybe Starbucks!). Some people would give you an answer based on what’s going on in the world today like “ISIS” or “Donald Trump”. Some people might give you a more general answer like “war”, “religion”, “cancer” or “earthquakes”.
Interestingly these answers will all broadly fall into one of two categories. The first category is in summary, bad things that happen that are no one’s fault – earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, other natural disasters (note that people only mind these things when they kill people – avalanches happen all the time and no one minds at all until they cause harm to human beings), cancer, HIV/AIDS, miscarriages.
The second category is bad things that are someone’s fault – war, religious extremism, rape, murder, abuse, torture.
Everyone’s answer will fall broadly into one of these two categories (I’m sure there’ll be someone reading this who would say Starbucks legitimately does too!)
It’s important to note that everyone will have an answer, go ahead and ask people. Everyone thinks there is something wrong with the world. You won’t find anyone answer the question with “Oh nothing, everything in my world is completely perfect. Thanks for asking.” There is something wrong with the world; we all feel it in some way. We feel the world shouldn’t be like this. Something in us longs for a world with no suffering and feels that it is unjust that we don’t live there now.
The question is; why would we think that?
Suffering and death are the most natural things in the world. None of us have ever known a world without disease, or suffering, or pain, or injustice. The brutal reality is from the moment you’re conceived there is only one thing that is guaranteed for your life; that one day you will die.
Survival of the fittest is an accepted law of nature. I love nature documentaries (obviously only David Attenborough ones, they don’t count otherwise) and I watch them with my two sons who are 4 and 2. I used to worry about whether to fast forward the parts where the lions rip apart the zebra; I thought it might make them sad or scared. If anything those are their favourite bits! They don’t seem to have a problem with the strong eating the weak. It’s just the way the world is. However, when it comes to human beings we feel very differently. When we look back at the “Final Solution” of World War II, which you could argue is the human version of natural selection, the strong killing the weak (in fact that is exactly what Hitler and his henchmen argued), we shudder with horror and rightly so. You only have to say the word Rwanda and what immediately springs to mind are not the beautiful, lush African mountains, but the appalling genocide that took place over a matter of weeks in 1994.
But why would we say that genocide is wrong? From an early age we seem to be quite happy to accept the survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom so why do we reel in such horror and disgust at the evils of genocide? On what basis would we even call it evil?
Some famous and clever person, I can’t remember who, used the example of human beings thinking that evil and suffering are wrong is like a fish swimming around and being constantly surprised at the wetness of water. We’ve never known a world without evil and suffering, in some ways it’s the most natural thing in the world. So why does anyone think that there is anything wrong with it?
This is where we begin to see how evil and suffering actually become evidence for God rather than against Him.
Were the Nazis wrong?
We all agree that suffering exists otherwise there would be no discussion. The question is; does it disprove God? At least the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible? Without God it is possible to say that people suffer, that people endure fear and pain and oppression. However without God it is impossible to say that suffering is wrong, that it is unfair or unjust, that it shouldn’t be that way and that someone (like God, maybe) should do something about it.
Does that make sense? If there is no God, then no one can say that anything is morally wrong. We might not like it, a group of people or even a society might not like it and make it punishable, like murder or terrorism for example. We might not like it, but if there is no God, then that’s the best argument we’re able to come up with; that, perhaps based on our biology or our societal construct, we find those things distasteful. But if that’s the case then no one can say anything is actually wrong, all anyone can say is that I as an individual, or we as a group of people, don’t really like that particular thing. It means if a group of people get together and say, “actually we don’t mind killing people of a particular belief, so we’re going to allow it”, without God, no one can say it is morally wrong. Seventy years ago a very large group of people got together and said exactly that in Nazi Germany.
Take another example; slavery. Without there being a God, no one can say that slavery is wrong. We could say that in our time and in our society, we no longer like the idea of slavery but we would have no leg to stand on in saying that the culture of 200 years ago in this country was wrong, it was just different.
Now, here’s the point. No one is comfortable with that. There is something in all of us that says NO! It’s not just that our tastes have changed over the years, slavery is wrong. It’s not just that we don’t like it and they didn’t mind it, the Nazis killing 6 million Jews was wrong, murdering innocent people is wrong, injustice is wrong. These aren’t just our ideas, there’s something deep within all of us that knows and cries out that these things are wrong and anyone who does them should be brought to justice if at all possible.
If you ask someone to define what evil is, most people will give you an example; the holocaust, murder, whatever it may be. However that’s not really a definition, they’re examples. If you push people a bit further for a definition of evil, they will say something like “things aren’t good like they should be, things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.” Therefore evil is, simply, moving away from the good of how things should be.
That’s the crux of it, where does anyone get the idea that things should be good? That evil and suffering are not the way things should be, or that there’s anything actually wrong with evil and suffering? But we feel there is. There’s something in us, in all of us, and I think you could go so far as to say there’s something outside of us that says evil and suffering are wrong.
It’s not just the way we feel, evil is wrong.
If you were writing a theological article on suffering, you could call that something a moral law. Where does it come from? If it is real, if it’s not just a matter of how we feel, if there is some standard out there by which we know that genocide is morally wrong, then that moral standard has to come from somewhere. It has to come from something that is moral. Therefore it has to come from a person, because objects and forces don’t have any understanding of morality, of things which are right and wrong, only persons do; moral persons.
So, in summary, although evil and suffering are a problem for people who believe in an all-good, all-powerful God, I think evil and suffering are even more of a problem for people who don’t believe in that God. Without a God of morality, who says that evil and suffering are wrong? Who says that murder and rape and genocide are wrong? But they are wrong. We know it; we feel it in our guts. We feel that people who commit these acts should face justice. Therefore I believe that evil and suffering, although problematic and painful, are actually evidence for the existence of a moral, personal God who cares about justice.
The next logical question then is if this moral, personal God, who cares about justice exists, if the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible exists, then why does he allow evil and suffering to continue? Why doesn’t he do something about it? And that’s where we’re going to pick it up in our series…