Can a good God allow suffering?

When I was a boy I had an idealistic view of war, probably created by the fact that any war movies I had seen as a child made war seem like a fun adventure with few real risks. The Great Escape, was about as serious a movie on the subject that I had seen.

It was probably a not dissimilar naive view that led many young men to march grinning and cheering into the meat grinders of the First and Second World Wars. We don’t often cheer soldiers into battle any more, we are older and wiser as they say.

For me my idealistic view of war as being a fun adventure went away the night I saw Saving Private Ryan in my early teens. The veil of bloodless fun and adventure was torn away and the horror of war was splattered onto the screen about as powerfully as any movie can.

Sometimes it takes facing the horror of seeing the true face of something for us to realise the danger and seek to avoid it.

This week, Stephen Fry, one of my favourite celebrities was asked what he would say to God if he ever met him.

Stephen is an Atheist but went along with the question anyway and his passionate answer was basically that he would want to hold God accountable for the suffering he has allowed in the world. I think the point underneath what he was saying, was basically that a loving all powerful God cannot exist, as if he did, he would not have created a world in which so much suffering occurs. In effect God, if he exists is evil, a maniac, a monster.

You can watch the video on YouTube, it’s had over 3.5million views.

It’s a compelling argument and is something I have agonised over a lot myself and have heard it many times from many people.

Why does God allow the most horrible suffering to occur without seemingly any physical intervention?

He could easily stop it, but he doesn’t, why?

There are really several questions here. Why did God create a world where suffering was allowed to happen in the first place, why does God allow suffering to continue?, can God be good if he allows suffering?.

I’m just looking at the last question and am only looking at it from a very narrow point of view. This is more me thinking through things from one angle rather than trying to give a comprehensive answer. I’m completely ignoring things like the origins of suffering, original sin and free will for the sake of keeping this short.

As a side note, this type of question appears in the bible itself. The biblical prophet Jeremiah questions the justice of God with regards to the seeming prosperity of evil people.

“Lord, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
Why are evil people so happy?”
– Jeremiah 12:1

The fact that this verse is in the bible tells us two things.

1. It’s not just Atheists who should be asking these questions. People of faith should have difficult questions to ask of their own faith. Nominal box ticking of a belief system is not enough. As C.S Lewis said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important”

2. Christianity should be and is be open to criticism. Christians should be perfectly happy to be criticised and have answers demanded of them. If you believe you have the truth then you can’t fear it being attacked, can you?

So back to the issue.

If God exists and is good and all-powerful, then why is there evil and suffering? Surely he can’t be all powerful if he is good and can’t stop suffering. And he also can’t be good if he is all powerful and won’t stop suffering. Can he?

This argument rests firmly on an assumption and that’s what I am going to focus on. The assumption is that a good all powerful God wouldn’t allow suffering to occur.

But what if he had a really good reason?

The best doctors in the world cause suffering for a time, but they have good reason, the long term good.

If suffering exists and an all powerful, all knowing, all loving God also exists then the only conclusion is that suffering must be allowed to happen for a very good reason. I fail to see how the two can exist together otherwise.

What reason could it possibly be?

What if there’s a serious problem with this world?

What if there’s a great danger in seeing this world as an attractive desirable place?

As a fun adventure with few real risks?

What if God wants something much better for us than this broken world?

What if it partly requires us to look at this world and ask why, why is it so messed up?

What things prompt people to ask why? Do people ask “why is this pleasure so good?”, “why am I so successful?”, “why is life just all round fun?”.

If this world is ultimately very bad for us, it’s in our greatest interest to see it for what it is.

We ask “why” the most from things that horrify us, sicken us, cripple us, disgust us, deprive us. We ask it because we hate to see mindless random evil and tragedy occur. We ask why because we want to believe that there was a reason for it. Otherwise we wouldn’t blink every time a tragedy occurred, we would simply write it off as an inconvenient truth about chance.

What if God allows suffering not because he can’t stop it or that he is evil, but that he is good and loves us. That he wants us to have the chance to ask why and to seek for answers beyond us?

In a world of unavoidable suffering that’s surely the only type of God you would want to exist.

God in having a reason to allow suffering, in turn gives meaning to suffering. Surely even this is of much greater comfort than that bumper sticker attitude which makes suffering meaningless, bad luck, oops too bad. Writing off suffering as a fact of life in no way softens its blow, but the idea that your suffering is part of a plan by a God who loves you…?

So to conclude, for at least the reason I’ve discussed, You can’t say that an all powerful God who allows suffering to occur is definitely a maniac, evil or a monster.

At this point the questions to answer are “Why is there so much suffering and horrible stuff in the first place”, “Why create those things?”, “If the world was created perfect, where do things like those horrible eye eating worms come from?” And of course the big one, “If God is all-powerful, then why doesn’t he just do things another way”.

I think those are perhaps topics for another time, but I think there will always be things to which we Christians may not even find a satisfactory answer for ourselves, but then that goes for everyone else as well. What matters is having the best explanation for all aspects of reality. Questions like: Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is our purpose in life? Is there life after death? Why does rationality exist? How should we treat others?

I found the below article which looks at this from another angle to be helpful.


4 thoughts on “Can a good God allow suffering?

  1. Fry’s comment is interesting and common enough but ultimately bankrupt. He’s using theistic moral tools to critique Christian theism, so his argument undermines itself.

    What does he mean by “evil”?

    He doesn’t mean that “evil” is personally defined, that it’s a term that only he can understand: he expects that we will share his understanding of what the term is, and that we have a common definition, and will share his conclusions.

    But this definition isn’t particular to our society either: Fry would admit that entire societies, cultures or even civilisations can give themselves over to actions which warrant the term “evil.” This is his charge against Christianity – a religion which spans cultures and civilisations across time.

    So he needs to use “evil” in a way that makes sense in all situations, everywhere, at all times – he is charging that God is cosmically evil.

    Therefore Fry is arguing for the existence of a morality that transcends everything, and against which everything and everyone is measured.

    I’m glad his conscience is still working. I’m glad he doesn’t think that morality is subjective and personal, true for one person and not another. I’m glad he takes evil seriously. But his challenge is to demonstrate how his idea of evil is meaningful. I wonder how he can make sense of the fact that he takes evil seriously without referring to a transcendent being whose character is the measure of goodness. Nothing else provides an adequate basis for his claim.

    The Bible is clear that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing the existence of evil. It doesn’t tell us what that reason is. The key question is whether we are prepared to believe the Bible’s testimony that God has a morally sufficient reason – or not.

    Fry’s problem is not that he doesn’t take evil seriously – he does – but he cannot account for this within the terms of his worldview. And he cannot solve the problem of a good God permitting evil because of his lack of faith in the Bible’s testimony about God’s goodness. All he is ultimately telling us is that he doesn’t believe in the goodness of God because he doesn’t believe in the Bible’s testimony about God. Yet he has to borrow the morality of the Bible in order to undermine its claims. He cannot do so on his own terms – atheists cannot justify making references to transcendent morality, and thoughtful atheists will admit this.

    But Stephen (Reid!) is right – the Bible deals with all these questions. Romans raises the issue of why a sovereign God permits evil. Paul’s response: Is there therefore injustice with God? God forbid. Let God be true and every man a liar. Who are you oh man to talk back to God?

    1. Hi CG, thanks for the comment, really like the way you explained this. I do have a question though because I have a good idea of how a Naturalist might respond.

      How would you address the idea that morality is simply a by-product of evolution? Or that morality is simply the seeking out of the way of life that provides happiness and avoids suffering for the greatest number of people?

  2. Mmm! The “greatest good of the greatest number” is the easier of the two objections to answer, as it simply begs the question of what is good, and so takes us back to the bigger question of how we define moral terms such as “good” and “evil” – a problem which is especially difficult if we want to use them as absolutes, irrespective of time or space. For example – lots of people in the 1940s had very good ideas of what could achieve the greatest good of the greatest number, and we count those fascists and anti-Semites as utterly evil. But I’m sure that many of them really did believe that what they were doing was good. I want a moral system that condemns their actions and which gives me a good reason to condemn those actions. The greatest good of the greatest number doesn’t allow me to do that. Who defines “good” when entire societies – i.e. those who constitute the “greatest number” – can be unspeakably evil?

    But I suppose the naturalist objection is also similar to this. I’ve only ever met one person who really believed that there were no moral absolutes, and was prepared to try to apply her belief consistently – it was pretty frightening to hear from her that she did not believe that e.g. ethnic cleansing was inherently wrong. I would not like to have someone like her as a neighbour! It is a kindness of God that he prevents most people living consistently with their (sinful and therefore irrational) beliefs. It’s always a good test to push people to consider how their ethical beliefs could be applied consistently. What kind of world would they create? Believe it or not, it would be much worse than this one.

    Of course morality is not a by-product of evolution. We know that because of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t teach evolution, and so doesn’t teach that morality is a by-product of evolution. The Bible doesn’t teach it, and therefore it’s wrong. At the same time, the Bible makes claims for itself that I believe are true because the Bible teaches me to do so.

    Of course that is arguing in circles, but all appeals to an absolute basis for knowledge are also circular. e.g. ask a rationalist to defend his rationalism, and he’ll give you a rational argument. But he’ll get very annoyed if you tell him he’s arguing in circles!

    If I appealed to anything less than the Bible to defend my belief in the Bible, I would be admitting that I believe in the Bible *because of* e.g. its historical accuracy – i.e. because other documents confirm it – thereby admitting that the real locus of authority lies in those other documents, and the Bible is confirmed only in those places where these other documents agree with it. So I think we defend the Bible on its own terms and using its own arguments. It is divine revelation and therefore in a category above all human knowledge. It tests human reason – and not vice versa.

    It’s possible to respond to philosophical arguments in philosophical ways, but I think we mostly waste our time doing that, and it wasn’t what our Lord and his apostles encouraged us to do. The problem with people who don’t believe the gospel isn’t that they have bad philosophy (though they do) but that they don’t believe the gospel! So I wouldn’t try to persuade them to do much except realise that God is their maker and judge, that he is very angry with them because of their sin, but has also provided a saviour from their sin, his son Jesus Christ. The reason why they don’t understand this is that their minds are blinded by the god of this age, sometimes through bad philosophy, always through bad presuppositions about the world and their place within it. But arguments won’t change minds. Rom 3 teaches us that no-one seeks after God, no-one understands, and so it is only as God opens the minds of unbelievers that the noetic effects of the fall are undone, clarity enters the mind, and regeneration occurs. These arguments will only make truly saving sense after someone is born again.

    I’ve found that Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen and John Frame are all very helpful on these questions, though they approach them in different ways. There is also a great video on Youtube by Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens, and they also wrote a book together, which is very short but good fun and full of good thoughts. Bahnsen also has some good stuff on Youtube, though the audio quality is sometimes disappointing. See you tomorrow!

  3. It is also worth considering that those who believe that morality is a by-product of evolution have no certainty that they will tomorrow make the same moral judgements as they do today.

    Almost everyone wants to make moral claims – almost no-one can explain why.

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