The problem of the existence, intensity of evil, and suffering serves as one of the most difficult barriers to trust in God on the intellectual level. Many people affirm that an inconsistency exists in the following three affirmations of the Christian faith. First, God possesses all-power and He has the capability to do something about evil. Second, perfect good characterizes God’s nature and He would want to do something about evil. Third, great evil exists. Yet, the all-powerful and all-good God seemingly does nothing about the evil. Because of the difficulty of reconciling these three claims, critics of Christianity label this problem the logical problem of evil.
For the majority of people, however, existential suffering functions as the primary reason for lack of faith or trust in God. In other words, the problem of evil and suffering exists on the level of their personal suffering rather than the intellectual difficulty of reconciling Christian claims about the nature of God. In this article, I will focus on this personal level of evil and suffering rather than the surmountable intellectual questions.
How can and should Christians respond to the problem of evil and suffering?
First, a Christian should understand that the problem of evil and suffering is more intense for non-Christians. Naturalistic atheism avoids the problem of evil and suffering through a denial of the existence of God. Evil and suffering are brute, purposeless, meaningless facts. Suffering is natural in light of “survival of the fittest” and the characterization of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Yet, C. S. Lewis, a former atheist, claimed that atheism was too simple in dealing with this issue. Lewis wrote, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? …Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.”
Pantheism runs from the problem of evil and suffering. Classical Hinduism exemplifies the claims of pantheism, the affirmation that all reality is one. Hinduism affirms that all reality is non-physical or spiritual. The impersonal One, called Brahman, is beyond good and evil. Moral categories such as good and evil do not apply to the Ultimate reality. Ultimate Reality comprises both good and evil. Physical reality and suffering is an illusion. Hinduism does not allow for a Good Samaritan because a Good Samaritan interferes with the karmic lesson of the sufferer.
Finite godism claims that God is doing the best He can. Finite godism denies one of the two central affirmations—either God is all-good or God is all-powerful. The more popular form of this view insists that God is good but that He lacks the power to do anything about evil. The best-selling book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People epitomizes this view. The important question then becomes, “Is a God who ‘does the best He can’ worth following?”
Christianity engages the problem of evil and suffering rather than avoiding the problem or denying the problem. The Christian position regarding evil and suffering provides greater practical wisdom for the sufferer. Methodist scholar Thomas Oden stated, “No part of Christian teaching is more pertinent to pastoral care that the classical view of the providence of God.”
Christianity presents a Christological (doctrine of the person of Christ) and eschatological (doctrine of end-times) perspective on the problem of evil and suffering. God decisively acted in history in the person of His Son to defeat evil and suffering. The victory of the Lamb that was slain serves as God’s final answer to the problem of evil and suffering. As a young Christian, I read the end of the Book first. God wins!
Second, Christians should realize that the Bible reveals some, not all, positive purposes for suffering. Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett summarized these purposes. First, suffering may be punitive. In some cases, suffering results from personal sin. Second, suffering may be revelational. Through the personal heartache of spousal infidelity, the prophet Hosea experienced a revelation of God’s amazing love for unfaithful people. Third, suffering may be testimonial. In the context of personal suffering, a Christian has the opportunity to bear testimony to the personal presence of God strengthening a believer. Fourth, the New Testament consistently proclaims that suffering may transformedbelievers (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-9). Fifth, suffering may be vicarious, that is, suffering endured for the sake of others. As our sin-bearer, Christ died for our sins on our behalf and in our place.
Third, Christians should seek to alleviate the evil and suffering inflicted upon others. As Kingdom citizens, God has not called us to passivity in the context of great evil and suffering. Atheists, in general, do not collectively organize to alleviate suffering. A Good Samaritan does not exist in classical Hinduism. Hinduism affirms that people suffer because of actions committed in a past life. To alleviate suffering, therefore, means the individual must repeat the suffering experience to learn their karmic lesson. Christians should oppose suffering caused by human sin and seek to alleviate the suffering of humans created in the image of God.
The most important aspect to the question of the problem of evil and suffering is not a proposed solution. The most important aspect to the question is the presence of the Answerer in the life of the sufferer.
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