The Meaning of Suffering in a Broken and Sinful World

1. Accidental suffering and evil – A pastor was cutting his front lawn. He looks up from his task just in time to see his neighbor back out of the garage–right over his three-year-old son, who had been hidden from the rearview mirror. The pastor runs over to assist the panicked father while they take the boy to the hospital in the ambulance. The father holds his son in agony and watches him breathe for the last time. Where is God? Why did He allow this unnecessary suffering to occur?  How do you console the father after this tragedy? 

We know from Psalms that God is good (Ps. 119:68), that He is gracious to us in our afflictions (Eph. 1:7), that God is love (1 John 4:16), that He is almighty and holy (Rev. 4:8), and the Lord will fulfill his promises (2 Pet. 3:9).


2. Natural Disaster suffering and evilOn April 26, 1989, an extremely destructive tornado in Bangladesh, India killed around 1,300 people, making it the deadliest tornado in world history. Countless trees were uprooted, every home within a five-mile radius was destroyed, and 80,000 people were left homeless. In 2004, a tsunami of gigantic proportions caused by shifting plates in the ocean floor off the coast of Aceh in northwest Indonesia caused horrific damage in several countries. It killed 300,000 men, women, and children. Where was God? If He is sovereign over nature, why would He inflict pain and agony on creation? 

Scriptures teach us that God is sovereign over the natural world (Ps. 65:9-10; Matt. 5:45), human history (Ps. 33:10-11; Dan. 4:34-35), individual human lives (Ps. 139; Jeremiah 1:4-5), chance (Prov. 16:33), human decisions (Ex. 3:21, Ezra 6:22), and salvation (Matt. 16:17-18; Jn. 6:44-45).

3. Purposeful suffering and evil Most people have heard about the horror that happened during the reign of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. Six million Jews, gypsies, and physically or mentally handicapped were systematically exterminated because of racism. We are told that we must not compare it with other acts of violence lest we trivialize it. However, the sad truth is that the twentieth century has experienced a string of similar holocausts: The same percentage of Cambodians died under the evil dictator Pol Pot, a million Hutus and Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda, Africa by Idi Amin, during the reign of Stalin, around 20 million Soviets and Ukrainians starved to death, and in the United States, from 1973 to 2008, nearly 50 million abortions have terminated the lives of unborn children who could have grown up to be future lawyers, doctors, and teachers. If God is all-loving, why would He allow such evil? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he bring justice and righteousness to the Earth?

How can accidental, natural, and purposeful suffering and evil be understood? First, let’s examine what the skeptic or Atheist may argue then try to understand suffering from a biblical perspective. The originator of the problem of evil is often cited as the Greek Philosopher Epicurus, who argued the following proof against the belief in God.

  1. If an all-powerful and perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist.

English: Image of Alvin Plantinga released by ...

Alvin Plantinga, an American analytic philosopher professor from Notre Dame, posited a “free will defense” in 1965, which refutes the logical problem of evil–the argument that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful and wholly good god. Plantinga’s argument states: “It is possible that God, even being all-loving, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures.” In other words, people have been created as free moral agents, to choose either evil or good. If there was no choice, humans would be predetermined and not be truly free.

Skeptics may claim that the problem of evil is difficult to reconcile with a theistic worldview, but actually, their worldview makes the problem of evil impossible. D.A. Carson comments on his book How Long, O Lord? “If there is no God and no criterion of goodness outside the universe itself, if all that happens is by chance from evolution, atoms, and particles bumping into each other randomly, what rational person should feel outraged before evils at all?”

From a Christian perspective, evil is known because we can contrast it to a God that is full of love, mercy, and grace. More importantly, the God-Man Jesus Christ knows firsthand what it means to experience evil and suffering. He, who knew no sin, became sin for us. He was perfectly righteous and yet was treated as the most heinous crime in the world. He took the full weight of God’s wrath. If God can take the greatest example of evil in the universe and turn it into the greatest source of praise, then he can take small suffering in our lives and turn it into something good. We may never understand fully why God allows human suffering, but we do know that there is coming a day when He will bring justice to the tyrants of history, set free the oppressed, and wipe every tear from our eyes, turning our sadness into ecstatic joy (Rev. 20-21). Continue to trust in Him!

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