If you or someone you love has questions on this issue (as most of us do!), I would encourage you to read Pastor Tim Keller’s New York Times Bestseller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.
In this post, I’d like to summarize what Keller says about this important question: how could a good God allow suffering?
Whether you are a believer or unbeliever, it’s a question you’ve likely asked at some point in your life, maybe often.
Keller says that there are two ways we can ask this question. The first is intellectual. How can we logically say that a good God could allow evil? The second is emotional. We get angry at a God who would allow such evil.
Let’s consider what Keller says about each in turn.
The Intellectual Issue
In regard to the intellectual question, Keller begins with the objection of a philosopher who states essentially: “because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist” (23).
Keller responds: there is a hidden premise, namely, that there is much pointless suffering in the world. The problem with this objection is that it assumes that what appears pointless to us actually is pointless. On what basis can we make the claim that because we don’t know the reason for the existence of suffering that it has no reason whatsoever? There seems to be hidden beneath this statement an unwarranted but very strong belief in our own analysis.
This is more than just an artful escape from a logical dilemma. He describes tragedies in his own life and the life of those whom he knows and states: “Though none of these people are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything” (25). I myself can testify to this same reality.
Second, Keller notes that suffering and evil may actually be an argument for God’s existence.
The reason is this: on a naturalistic worldview, there is little reason to complain that the world is unjust. He notes:
. . . the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?
In short, the problem of suffering is a problem for everyone, and it is at least as big of a problem for unbelief as for belief.
The Emotional Argument
To discuss suffering in this way can easily seem cold and unfeeling, especially to those who are in the midst of great suffering.
Keller responds this way:
[A real-life sufferer] might say[,] “I’m still angry. All this philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering!” In response the philosopher Peter Kreeft points out that the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. (27)
According to Keller, the emotional argument is best answered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the death of Jesus on the cross, we see God experiencing some of the worst suffering that one can experience in the world. He puts Himself right in the center of it. We may still wonder, Why does God allow suffering in the world? We may not know the whole answer; however, as Keller notes, “we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition” (31).
The second part of the answer is the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus teaches that God is going to restore everything that was lost. That is the Christian hope. Keller cites Russian philosopher and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky who captures this point powerfully:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that happened. (33–34)
I know that such a short explanation will not satisfy everyone, but I hope that it can be of an aid to you, if you are struggling with some of these issues. At the least, I hope it can whet your appetite to dig in further to Keller and some of the resources he points to in his book.