Earlier this year Sharon Dirckx tackled this difficult subject as part of our Big Questions series.
The late Christopher Hitchens, a best-selling author and Atheist, was interviewed in 2011 about his diagnosis of terminal oesophageal cancer. He was asked whether he had been tempted to ask the question: ‘Why me?’. He responded in this way: ‘You can’t avoid the question, however stoic you are. You can only bat it away as a silly one. Millions of people die every day. Everyone’s got to go sometime.’ In other words, if God does not exist, there is no point asking why, because there is no-one to ask. This is simply the way the world is.
But if this is simply the way the world is, how do we make sense of our outrage when we hear of crimes against humanity, child trafficking, cyber-bullying and so on?
Suffering creates an awareness that there is something wrong with the world. Evil is real, not simply personal preference. The Christian faith uniquely makes sense of this instinct. Good is defined by God; an utterly flawless Being who has imprinted goodness onto people. Evil is anything contrary to God, personified as Satan, who has some influence for now.
In other words, our anger at evil and suffering points us towards God, not away. We instinctively ask ‘Why?’ because God exists, and he hears our cries.
If God is so loving, why is there so much suffering?
This question does not ask whether God exists, but what is he like? As my colleague Michael Ramsden points out, many of the objections to God are on the basis that he is morally dubious. The seeming contradiction that Christians uniquely face, highlighted by CS Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain and others, is that, given the suffering in the world, if God exists then he is either not all-powerful, or he is malevolent, lazy or shows favouritism. A loving, all-powerful God would presumably create a loving world. So why didn’t he?
At the heart of any response is that the God of the Bible is Love in its truest, purest form, and has created a world with love at the centre. But for love to be possible there must be freedom to choose, because real love is chosen, not forced. One of our greatest human dignities is that we have freedom to choose all kinds of things. When this is removed, a great sense of injustice rises up. Our movies are full of real and fictional stories about escaping entrapment or slavery into real freedom precisely because this is so central to what it means to be human.
The Christian narrative is that God has made a world that is good, but with freedom to choose wrong, and our ancestors used their freedom to reject God and introduced a brokenness that has filtered into every layer of life; our choices, our relationships and even our very biology. This is seen in every generation.
CS Lewis makes the point that some suffering (but not all) is caused by human actions. Perhaps we can remember times when we have been on the receiving end of someone else’s foolish choices, but also times when we have caused the suffering of another. The problem of suffering resides in every human heart. It is internal as well as external.
Is God punishing me?
Some feel singled out for punishment in their suffering and this can increase the sense of loneliness and isolation. Yet, suffering is not a personal punishment from God, but is rather a general consequence of living in a world that is broken and with which everyone is caught up one way or another.
‘God did not remain distant but entered our broken world as the person of Jesus Christ to face suffering head on’
But does God care about MY suffering?
It seems very convenient for God to set the world up and then stay so distant! He doesn’t seem to have to experience the repercussions of the freedom he allowed. Does he even care about what people are going through? Why doesn’t he come and experience life here and get his hands dirty? The amazing news is that he did.
God did not remain distant but entered our broken world as the person of Jesus Christ to face suffering head on. Jesus Christ came close enough to look people in the eye and do something about their suffering. He brought hope into situations of deep despair, by healing the sick, restoring the marginalised and even raising the dead. People matter to Jesus.
More than this. Jesus himself experienced great suffering. Right at the centre of Christianity is not a symbol of victory and triumph, but of execution and death. Jesus was arrested and tried unfairly, sentenced to death, betrayed and disowned by his closest friends, flogged, beaten up, nailed to a cross and left to die of asphyxiation.
The prophet Isaiah 53 describes Jesus hundreds of years beforehand as, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. During times of suffering, we feel most at home with those who have been through something similar. With Jesus there is a shared experience of suffering. He knows because he has been there.
Yet, Jesus has not just suffered like us, he has also suffered for us in a way that goes far beyond anything we have experienced. Jesus died so that we can live. Jesus took all of our mistakes, regrets, guilt, failures upon himself, so that we can know forgiveness, comfort, restoration and peace with God.
What difference does a man on a cross 2,000 years ago make to me today?
It may help us to think about situations where relationships are so broken that mediation is needed. For effective mediation we need someone who understands the problem but is not part of it. To solve the problem of evil we need someone who can identify with evil but themselves do not contain any.
The only person in history to meet both criteria is Jesus Christ. He is the only person who never contributed to the problem of evil and the only one able to defeat it. Jesus, who did no evil, said no evil and thought no evil, allowed himself to be consumed by evil so that if we trust in him we never have to be consumed by evil in this life or the next. Evil does not have to have the last word. There is no pit too deep, no trauma too overwhelming from which God can’t pull us out and put us back on our feet again.
The incredible news is that our freedom is still intact. We are free to choose God, or we are free to walk away. Whatever life has thrown at us, we have the choice to go through it without God, or with him. Christ does not always offer us answers, but he does offer us himself.
‘Evil does not have to have the last word. There is no pit too deep, no trauma too overwhelming from which God can’t pull us out and put us back on our feet again’
If God is real then why doesn’t he get rid of evil once and for all?
Our stories are broken. For some, our suffering is getting worse, not better. The mother in her final days of terminal cancer, the son with a degenerative disease for which there is no cure. Is there any way that our broken stories can be fixed once and for all?
In Atheism you can’t fix them. The best you can do is live well, and fight evil and suffering with science and technology. Make the most of this life because it is the only one you get.
In Eastern thought there are repeating stories. If you suffer in this life you must have caused it in a previous life. You can’t fix it in this life, but you can work hard to reset the karma for the next life.
In Christianity, this is not the end of the story. Our broken stories are fixed by embedding them in a much bigger story in which good wins and evil loses. Evil has been defeated on that first Easter and one day it will be removed altogether. One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away.
The fact that this day has not arrived yet is not because God wants to prolong our suffering, but because he wants this message of hope to spread far and wide and to draw in as many as possible. If the problem of evil resides in every human heart, then the need to be right with God on the day he removes it altogether could never be more urgent.
The question comes to us again. How will we use our God-given freedom?
Yet, through Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection, it is possible to know forgiveness for the past, comfort in the present and hope for the future.