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The Suffering God

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. "Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

This is the intellectual problem, and the two directions one must take in attempting to answer is either:

  • I won’t believe in God, or at least a god like this
  • I still believe in God

If you go with the first direction, you fall in the same camp at Albert Camus in The Plague:

“Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” Tarrou nodded. “Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.” Rieux’s face darkened. “Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.” “No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.” “Yes. A never ending defeat.” —Albert Camus, The Plague

You can stop believing in a god who would let this happen, but that doesn’t ultimately solve the problem of suffering and evil. You’re left with a never ending defeat. When you measure Christianity against other socio-religious perspectives, you’ll find Christianity, though still having a problem with evil, does quite well comparatively.[1]

Okay, so I believe in God, but that still doesn’t solve the problem. Why would God allow evil and suffering to occur? The answer cuts to the root of what we believe about God. If God is infinitely knowledgeable—why couldn’t he have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil that you can’t think of? To insist that we know as much about life and history as all-powerful God is a logical fallacy, howsoever much the immanent frame of our culture would incline us to feel that way.

“If you have a God infinite and powerful enough for you to be angry at for allowing evil, then you must at the same time have a God infinite enough to have sufficient reasons for allowing that evil.” —Tim Keller

And that is what Peter Berger, a well known American sociologist and philosopher means when he says that the Bible presents two ways in which it deals with suffering:

The book of Job — God questions Job and says we have no right to question God because we cannot understand God’s transcendence. In other words, if God has not dealt with a particular form of evil or suffering the only conclusion that we can come to is that He has a reason—and, if we believe Him to be infinitely wise and good, we must trust that as reason enough.

But that isn’t very comforting. It informs our mind but doesn’t do much to our heart, which is where the second way helps us:

Christ’s death & resurrection—Christ came to suffer so that God could destroy the ultimate evil (sin & death) without destroying us. And, furthermore, because Christ suffered, he now understands our sufferings not just in a general sense, but in a real, personal way.

This is the power of the suffering God.

Therefore, we know intellectually that God has dealt with ultimate evil by destroying sin and death. Though we might not see a particular evil or suffering dealt with now does not mean that God is not able or does not care. We know he is both able and willing because God’s ultimate punishment fell on God in Jesus. But it didn’t end there.

Not only did God deal with ultimate evil and suffering through the cross, but he proved its defeat through the resurrection, and promises the spirit of Christ (the very one who knows all about our suffering) to be near to us in our time of trial.

The way in which we answer the question, “why does God allow evil and suffering” is to say that in our finite time and finite understanding, we do not know why. But we do know that he has dealt with the ultimate evil, which means he will deal with all evil, which gives us hope because of the resurrection, and finally endurance to the extent that we embrace and share the sufferings of Christ.

Keller sums up beautifully this idea of needing both an intellectual and emotional understanding of the power of the suffering God:

“It is one thing to believe in God but it is quite another thing to trust God. It is one thing to have an intellectual explanation for why God allows suffering; it is another thing to actually find a path through suffering so that, instead of becoming more bitter, cynical, despondent, and broken, you become more wise, grounded, humble, strong, and even content.” —Tim Keller

The other gods were strong, but Thou was weak. They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne. But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds but Thou alone. —Edward Shillito, from “Jesus of the Scars”

“The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” —George MacDonald

[1] I could go into more detail about this claim, but that isn’t the purpose of this post. I’ll save the defense of Christianity as a better socio-religious perspective for another time.

Because I needed to grasp this, for the last few years I’ve focused almost exclusively on the theology of evil and suffering, the resurrection, and heaven in my personal study. The most helpful resources to me have been:

  • The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis
  • The Great Divorce, CS Lewis
  • Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller
  • The Resurrection of the Son Of God, NT Wright
  • The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis
  • Job
  • Reading through the Psalms of Lament
  • Philippians 3:10-11
  • Revelation 21

*This post originally appeared on the Faith & Function blog.


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