How Christianity Makes Better Sense of Suffering

asdA common challenge by atheists raises questions that most Christians feel ill-equipped to handle. I know from first hand experience how unsatisfactory many of our “answers’ may seem. Take this question, for instance: how, it is asked, can a “loving” God allow billions of unborn babies to die. Since the beginning of human history, God has allowed countless babies to die either before birth or shortly after. The Christian God, the argument goes, has taken no prudent or loving steps to protect unborn children nor has he done anything generally to alleviate the dreadful impact of the natural world on fragile human beings.

This challenge is but a variation on the standard challenge which, atheists contend, proves that the God of the Bible – a God who is both loving and powerful – cannot exist. But the challenge proves more about the presuppositions of the challenger than it does about the existence of God. There is an assumption at play here – that the only life there is is the “natural life” prior to death and that to be “loving,” God must allow all of us to have a full, long, happy and relatively pain-free life.

This secular challenge is an easy one to make. No one wants to suffer, or to see others suffer. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the impact suffering has on us, both physically and emotionally. Yet suffering – and ultimately death – are a constant and prominent feature of the human experience. Making sense of this state of affairs is not easy, as we seek to understand things from our limited perspective. The value of the Christian worldview is that it transcends these limitations. While the atheist can make no sense of this often “short and brutish” experience, the Christian worldview, drawing on an outside source, can. We were never promised 100 pain-free years; no, we were made for something far greater, something we squandered when we used our free will to oppose God. Destined for eternal life, we face a problem – spending that eternity separated from the one who created us.

But God in his mercy provided a solution. The contrast in worldviews is stark – to the secularist, the most that can be hoped for is 100 pain free years – an utterly impossible wish- and then oblivion. To the Christian, the point of this life, however long or short, however painful or pain-free – is to make it to the next life, to that life in God’s presence that Jesus’ death on the cross made available to us. Just as the issue for an unborn baby is not how painful gestation or birth may have been, but whether he or she survived the experience, so too for us at this phase, the ultimate issue is whether this life leads to the fullness of eternal life with God, or whether it leads to eternal emptiness separated from God.

But what of the atheist’s contention that such a God cannot be “loving.” How can loving and suffering ever be reconciled? To answer that, we must have clearly in mind what is meant by “loving.” To some, loving means giving someone everything that he may want; never having to set limits or say no to someone. After all, to say “no” is to deny the person something that he or she wants, and will only lead to frustration and unhappiness on the part of the other person. It does not take much reflection to see that this definition – employed these days by far too many permissive parents – is a prescription for disaster as it relates to raising children. Anyone who has dealt with a spoiled child knows why.

No, to “love” someone requires something more: it requires that we seek the good for the other. “Tough love” is effective – and not an oxymoron – because there are times when the “loving” thing to do is to deny another the thing he wants, even if that leads to suffering. Some parents learn this lesson the hard way; wanting to give their children everything, they depart from the natural order of things. They prevent their children from learning the harsh realities of this world – a world we did not create and whose rules we cannot alter simply by wishing them to be different. By shielding their children from nature’s harsh realities, they fail to prepare the child for adult life, where hardship and frustration are common experiences.

But our problem is greater than that of a parent needing to discipline an unruly child. If we happened across a thug robbing a pensioner, we would not employ a “loving” response and allow him to continue. Justice would override love in that setting, and we would stop the assault. The robber might have many reasons for his behavior and might have deluded himself into thinking he was somehow justified. So too with us. We may think that we are entitled to the keys to the kingdom, for us to do as we please. But to a perfectly just God, our acts of rebellion demand a response.

And therein lies the ultimate issue: if loving someone is desiring their ultimate good, who better to understand that good than the creator of this universe, the very standard by which good is measured? As a perfect being, God defines and embodies the ultimate good. Spending eternity in his presence is, therefore, the ultimate good that any of us can ever achieve. That we so often reject this gift is a function of our fallen nature. The corruption of our thinking that leads us to ever more selfish living also prevents us from seeing things – including ourselves – the way they truly are.

But God suffers no such limitation. The suffering he allows in the world is not a limitation under which he labors and can find no solution. As Christians, we trust that this suffering, a byproduct of the fall, serves a purpose. We may not grasp that purpose, and we quite decidedly do not like the consequences of it.

This world, despite its abundant riches and beauty, is a dangerous place for frail human beings. The atheists’ challenge recognizes this characteristic of nature. Yet, skeptics often rely on the fall back position that if there is a God, He will recognize their inherent goodness and reward them for their goodness. Does the skeptic not see that the harshness of nature may instead testify to the seriousness of our predicament? Does it not bear witness to the Christian position that a powerful and just God can rightly condemn us for our rebellion, and that suffering is a by product of that state of affairs? From where does the confidence come that God will see things our way?

Contemplating suffering is unpleasant business. Christianity provides an explanation for our predicament, as well as an ultimate solution. Atheism provides neither.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Bill Stallings says:

    Human suffering is understandable in the context of Christian belief but I have trouble with animal suffering. Countless billions of animals have suffered over countless centuries. Some mammals and birds, at least, possess awareness and the ability to anticipate and dread suffering. At least a few species have been demonstrated to have self awareness and some capacity for abstract thought. But Christianity says nothing of animals being granted eternal life. How can all that immense suffering be justified?

    • Dan says:

      I have thought of that as well so I sympathize with your concern, here Bill. I just can’t find a good reason for importing a moral standard into the animal kingdom. The natural world is ruthlessly indifferent to any sort of moral concern. It may appear certain actions are moral, such as a baboon protecting their herd. But there’s no compelling reason to think these actions are anything more than amoral instinctive impulses. Why bring all this up? Well, I think it’s important we not import our moral concepts into a place it doesn’t belong. Surely, when human agency impacts animal suffering, there’s a moral issue at stake. Animal suffering in the natural course of things is something entirely different. Perhaps God has a morally sufficient reason to give certain animals the awareness of suffering. Perhaps that awareness gives them more pleasure than pain over the long term. To suggest there was a way to accomplish this better than what God has ordained is a lofty claim that needs it’s own support. What’s worse, without God, we can’t even call animal suffering evil on at least two counts. First, without God directing the way things are supposed to be there is no way things are NOT supposed to be (i.e. needless animal suffering). Second, I’m not convinced animal suffering – as difficult as it may be to see – is evil. Today I cut away a half-eaten lizard who was caught in a deer fence along my property. I cut him away as he squirmed and stared right into my eyes the whole time. By the time I was done, he was dead, or at least no longer moving. That was hard. But I don’t know what evidence there is, beyond my own human sympathies, to think what I witnessed was actually evil. There are many others who have worked and thought harder on these things than me. I suggest Clay Jones’ new book just released last week “Why God Allows Evil” for starters. It’s good!

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