How can we believe in God in a world so full of suffering?

Where was God in Paris on Friday evening? On Friday evening the 13th November 2015 teams of Islamic State terrorists launched three separate attacks in Paris with machine guns and bombs. 129 people were murdered and more than 350 others were injured. This week people will be asking important questions. “Why doesn’t God do something to stop terrorists BEFORE they kill innocent people?” “Doesn’t the presence of so much evil in the world prove that God doesn’t exist at all?” “How can we believe in God in a world so full of suffering?” Where was God in Paris on Friday evening?
When we think about human suffering, all kinds of examples come to mind. The plight of refugees fleeing the evils of Islamic State. Famines and floods. The millions without food and billions without safe drinking water or the basics of medical care. And the individuals killed or maimed in car crashes and house fires. Sometimes people we know who are in agony from terrible diseases. And we may be experiencing suffering and grief in different situations ourselves. How can we believe in God in a world so full of suffering? This is one of the six big questions which people who are not Christians want an answer to – and as Christians we need to be prepared to give an answer which is true and satisfying. It first began to be asked after Auschwitz and Belsen, and came to a focus in Britain after Locherbie and Dunblane. Where was God in those places when so many innocent people were suffering and dying?
In many events, responsibility for the suffering obviously rests with people, with deliberate acts of evil. But in other situations nobody is to blame and nobody should be blamed! “Natural disasters” and tragic accidents happen and they could have happened to any one of us! So the question is very straightforward – why does God allow such accidents to happen? The problem of what is called “innocent suffering” is a vital issue for Christians to grapple with.
It’s a question which people who are not Christians will sometimes raise as their “proof” that God doesn’t exist at all. “If there was a God then he wouldn’t allow that kind of suffering,” they say. To some people the existence of innocent suffering is a knockdown argument which demonstrates to them that there is NO God at all.
The classic formulation of the problem of innocent suffering goes something like this.
If God is all-powerful he COULD stop all suffering.
If God is all-loving He WOULD stop all suffering.
So does the presence of suffering in the world prove that God is NOT all-loving?
Or does it prove that God is NOT all-powerful?
Or does it prove that God doesn’t exist at all?
Actually, when you stop to think about it, that argument doesn’t prove anything at all. “If there was a God, he wouldn’t allow innocent people to suffer,” people say. But saying, “if there was a God” in that kind of way is actually already making some important assumptions about what God is like. It assumes at least that God exists, that God is good, that God is just, that God is loving. Unless God exists, unless God is good and just and loving, there is NO reason to expect the world to be any different. Unless God exists and is good and just and loving, there would be no reason to expect him to do anything to STOP innocent suffering. Then the question also assumes that a God exists who is powerful enough to change events in the world if he wanted to. A God who wasn’t all-powerful could not be expected to do anything about innocent suffering.
So the person who asks, “where is God when innocent people are suffering?” is already assuming that a God exists who is not only good and just and loving but who is also powerful enough to prevent innocent suffering if He so chooses. The question is not really about whether God exists at all, but rather whether he is really the kind of God we believe him to be, in the light of events in the world which suggest the opposite.
The heart of the problem of innocent suffering is really best expressed like this. “Why does a good and just and loving and all-powerful God allow innocent people to suffer?” Does this mean that God is not really good and just and loving? Or does it mean that God isn’t really all-powerful after all?
In response to this question as Christians we want to say a number of things.

God IS good and just

The Bible teaches us in so many places that God is perfect in His justice, goodness, righteousness and fairness. The Bible talks about righteousness more than 500 times and justice almost 200. We are only human, limited in our wisdom and understanding. God rules the world with complete justice and fairness. And as well as being a good and just God, the Bible makes clear that

God IS all-powerful

The God of the Bible is God ALMIGHTY, Maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them. We see God’s mighty power at work in the events of the Exodus, in the miracles worked by the prophets and supremely by Jesus. But since God is both good and just, and also all-powerful, why doesn’t God surely bring innocent suffering to an end? The answer to that question lies in the reality of the free will of human beings to make choices.
Life is full of risks. Where we live. How we travel. What we eat. All these decisions carry risks of us being harmed in some way. Some accidents are simply that, totally unforeseen circumstances that lead to accidents that could happen to anyone. But these are rare. Frequently somewhere along the way human beings have made some choices which have made the accident a possibility. We have chosen to put ourselves into a position where we might be hurt. So the only way God could prevent those kinds of accidents would be to take away our free will – to never let anybody take any risks, ever.
In the same way, so much suffering of innocent people is actually caused directly or indirectly by the sinful actions of human beings. Not only through murder and war, where the powerful inflict terrible suffering on the powerless. So many of the world’s problems are caused by greed. There IS enough food to go round. So often, it just doesn’t get to the people who are starving at prices they can afford to pay. And there is enough land for people to be able to build homes in safety, instead of on flood plains or along fault lines or in the shadows of volcanoes.
The one sure-fire way that God could deal with the problem of innocent suffering would be to make sure that NOBODY could ever harm anybody else. But the only way to do that would be to get rid of all the people who could ever possibly, maybe, one day, not just by deliberate action but by omission or even by accident, all those people who could conceivably cause harm to others. And that would mean all of us, everybody, the whole human race. Because we are all human, all fallen, all sinful. We all have free will. Any one of us could choose to hurt others. And we are all fallible, all imperfect. Any one of us by our mistakes and failures and accidents could cause others to suffer even if that was the last thing we intended. We all make bad choices. So the only way God could get rid of innocent suffering completely would be to get rid of all the people. God could do this. He IS all-powerful. But at the same time,

God IS loving and merciful

The God of the Bible is a God of love and of mercy. The reason that God doesn’t solve the problem of innocent suffering by the simple plan of wiping out all the people is obvious proof of God’s love and mercy.
If God were to intervene in miraculous ways to prevent EVERY incident of innocent suffering, what a strange world we would live in. The car with brakes failing wouldn’t hit the pedestrian, because God would lift the pedestrian 10 feet into the air as the car crashed beneath him. The African village wouldn’t be swept away because, just as in the parting of the Red Sea, the floodwaters would separate and flow each side of the village instead of through it. The starving millions might discover that stones really do turn to bread for them each day. That would indeed be a world full of strange miracles. It would be a very confusing unpredictable world to live in. But that isn’t the world God created!
We believe in a God of miracles. We believe in a God who DOES act in power to bring healing and deliverance and salvation. But we also recognise that God only works in those kinds of ways in rare and exceptional circumstances, usually in his church and for his praise and glory and not usually in the world which does not even believe He exists. God alone has the wisdom and justice to decide fairly when it is right for Him to intervene by miracles and when to let events run their natural course, however tragic the outcome. We trust in God’s justice and fairness. And we recognise that it is actually a sign of God’s love and mercy that, although He IS all-powerful, God generally does allow the world to continue in its own way, with natural laws operating unhindered and events unfolding in predictable ways. For most of the time, God leaves human beings to take responsibility for our lives, and to take care of each other as best we are able. Because the only alternative would be to bring this world to an end and make a radically different world!
Somebody once asked the German preacher and theologian Helmut Thielicke what he thought was the most important question facing the Western World. He pointed to the question of suffering.
“Again and again I have the feeling that suffering is regarded as something which is fundamentally inadmissible, distressing, embarrassing, and not to be endured. Naturally, we are called upon to combat and diminish suffering. All medical and social action is motivated by the perfectly justified passion for this goal. But the idea that suffering is a burden which can or even should be fundamentally radically exterminated can only lead to disastrous illusions. One perhaps does not even have to be a Christian to know that suffering belongs to the very nature of this our world and will not pass away until this world passes away. And beyond this, we Christians know that in a hidden way it is connected with man’s reaching for the forbidden fruit, but that God can transform even this burden of a fallen world into a blessing and fill it with meaning.”
“Suffering is part of the very nature of this our world,” said Thielicke. It would be a very, very different world which did not have such suffering. The continued existence of evil and the possibility of innocent suffering are both consequences of God’s mercy and patience. He could just bring judgement on us all here and now and that would be and end of it! Until that judgement comes, there will always be suffering.

Suffering is a consequence of human free will.

The fact is that human beings DO have free will. And in the world as it is, the only way God could remove the evil and suffering from the world would be to take away all human freedom of choice. Somebody may ask “Why doesn’t God do something to stop terrorists BEFORE they kill innocent people?” The answer is simple. Because the only way God could stop evil people from doing evil things would be to take away freedom of choice from ALL of us, for ALL the time! God chooses not to do that. God chooses to give us free will and leave us all with free will. We are able to make choices and sometimes we make bad choices.
BUT (some people object) if God knew that human choice would lead to so much evil and suffering why did He give us free will in the first place? Some answers to that question go like this:
(a) Our experiences of suffering and evil are in some ways “good for us”. They teach us to make good choices, develop character, inspire faith and so “refine our souls”. (Rom 5:3-5) (Irenaeus)
(b) God wants us to love him freely, not because we are programmed to do so like robots. Human free will and the resulting evil and suffering are necessary so that we have a genuine free choice either to love or to reject God. The world is “a Vale of Soul-Making” (John Hick 1968)
(c) The existence of so much evil and suffering in the world are necessary so that God’s divine and mysterious purposes can be fulfilled. As limited human beings, we may never understand God’s plan in this life but in heaven we will understand why so much evil was necessary. (1 Pet 1:3ff)
God IS good and just, God IS all-powerful and God IS loving and merciful. In His wisdom he leaves the world to carry on and doesn’t prevent innocent suffering by continually intervening. But we mustn’t conclude that God is aloof or unaffected when people are suffering and dying. Because last, but by no means least, there is something else very important which Christians want to say.
God shares our sufferings

Sometimes we can feel that God doesn’t know what is going on in his world, or that he doesn’t care about us anymore. But when we reflect on the events of the last week of His earthly ministry we are reminded why Jesus Christ the Saviour has been the strength and inspiration for so many who have suffered innocently. The poor and the oppressed and the slaves, the sick and the suffering and the dying in every age have found comfort and hope not only in the resurrection of Jesus, but in His dying on the cross for them. Because more than anywhere else, it was on the cross that Jesus the Son of God took upon Himself our pains and our sufferings
After the Dunblane massacre nearly twenty years ago Steve Chalke wrote some wise words which apply to so many instances of innocent suffering. “We know that what happened was neither His doing nor His will. God’s was the first heart to break over the events that took place there. He wept with us for the children whose lives were cut short and the family they left behind. When confronted with the pain of the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus also wept.”
God is suffering right now with so many who are injured and dying and bereaved, homeless and terrified. God suffers with communities shattered by every dreadful tragedy. God suffers with the thousands dying in floods and famines and conflicts, and with the tens of thousands dying of hunger and of terrible diseases every day, whose innocent suffering we never know about but God sees in intimate detail. God is suffering with the bereaved and the injured in Paris today.
God suffers with us in EVERY incident of innocent suffering, and God knows that suffering so well because there was none so innocent as Jesus, the Son of God, the spotless Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world, Jesus who experienced deeper grief and pain there on the cross than and human being before or since. God suffers with us.
How can we believe in God in a world so full of suffering? Because we know that, wherever people are suffering, God is there suffering with us. Where was God in Paris on Friday evening? God was there, weeping with the rest of us.

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