How Can a Good God Allow Human Suffering?
Many think a good God would never allow people to suffer because suffering hurts, and a good God should alleviate pain. If removing pain is beneficial, and an all-good, all-powerful God exists, it would make sense for this God to eliminate all pain, right?
Religious and non-religious alike have posed this question. For some, it is the reason they abandon their beliefs. For others, this question is why they commit themselves more deeply to faith. Those who turn from faith see the matter as a logical argument either against the existence of a good and powerful God, against the existence of God at all, or both. They reject the idea of worshiping the God of the Bible in the face of excruciating suffering. Those who embrace biblical faith despite the existence of suffering view the dilemma as resolved by the presence of a good and powerful God. They find peace and solace in following Him.
How do we reconcile these divergent views? One key could be to differentiate between suffering caused by moral failure and suffering caused by other reasons. However, no matter what the cause, pain and suffering are always emotional situations, which adds to the complexity of the problem.
Consequences of Moral Evil
Some suffer because of moral evils like theft, murder, and rape. Yet, people also suffer from cancer, miscarriages, and hurricanes destroying homes. Moral evil is when humans intentionally cause suffering. However, not all suffering is the result of moral evil.
Sometimes, when we consider the problem of evil and suffering, our own experiences can easily blind our hearts and bend our logic. So often, we cannot find the reasons for our suffering or the pain of a loved one. We seek comfort in the answers but find little help making suffering sensible.
Maybe suffering causes us to run from God when we should consider running toward Him instead. Divine help and wisdom are always available by simply reading the Bible. The Psalms have long comforted those who have faith in God and those who do not. The psalmist’s words eloquently mirror our pain and lead us to a God who identifies with our suffering. Knowing this often provides some relief from the loneliness of suffering—we are not alone.
The Intellectual Problem
The Bible and our shared experiences indicate God created humans with self-determination—the ability to choose and perform evil acts. Those choices are ours. Our poor decisions do not stain the One who made us. For example, two virtuous parents can give birth to a child who becomes a murderer, but the child’s evil acts do not mean the two righteous parents are not virtuous.
Why would God create humans and permit them to do evil deeds? It could be because God also wants us to experience love. Love, by definition, can only be freely given. No one can program a robot to love genuinely. No one can force someone to love another person. Love must be a freely chosen decision. Since love cannot be compelled, human beings must have the freedom of choice to experience it.
We should also reconsider whether God abolishing all moral evil is desirable. Choice is a significant theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. If God were to take away the possibility of making the wrong choice, making the right choice is no longer a choice at all. The Bible considers the consequences of bad choices when we are told, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). Yet, God still tells us to “choose life in order that you may live” (Deut 30:19). He gives us the ability to choose so we can choose to love.
Suffering and the Existence of God
Now, regarding the problem of suffering not caused by the evil of others, we must ask if human suffering and the existence of a good God are mutually exclusive. Can we show how human suffering does not necessarily negate the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God? Is it possible to show how suffering can produce good?
It is understandably challenging to see how good might come from suffering while we are still going through it. As a result of our circumstances, we may see suffering as an argument against God’s existence or His goodness. We can be prone to viewing suffering as always evil. But if we can show how the experience of suffering might produce something more meaningful than the suffering itself, it might produce the very solace those hurting are seeking. Discovering faith in the midst of suffering takes reflection and courage, especially when you may not have been brought up in a home where God was part of your everyday life. Sometimes, we simply need to see the good suffering can produce when viewed through the eyes of faith.
Good Can Arise from Suffering
We have all experienced temporary pain, especially physical pain, producing some good, including necessary surgery, physical exercise, or a dental visit. Emotional discomfort can also lead to good results when we, for example, forgive someone. Pain and suffering do have obvious benefits at times.
If suffering were inherently incompatible with goodness, then there would not be any benefit from these sources of pain. However, we know this is not the case.
Not only can these discomforts produce positive outcomes, but they may also prevent greater suffering later. The pain endured following heart surgery is inconsequential compared to dying without the surgery. Pain experienced when exercising sometimes helps prevent future injury and sickness. The uncomfortable interactions we endure when apologizing and forgiving sustain relationships and families. Persevering through suffering can sometimes prevent greater suffering later on.
When Suffering Seems Pointless
The Ultimate End of Suffering
Still, it is fair to say, “If an all-good and all-powerful God exists and suffering exists, then God should provide a solution to my suffering.” According to the Scriptures, God is our rescuer and redeemer. So much suffering in this world arises from human failure, which the Hebrew Scriptures call “sin”—my sin, your sin, others’ sin, and even our collective sin. Thankfully for us, God provides a way for our sins to be forgiven (Jeremiah 31:34) and for us to be transformed and begin the long process of being remade in His likeness—spiritually, morally . . . and from the inside out. As predicted by Isaiah,
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. (Isa 53:5–6)
This prediction of a suffering Messiah who bore the sins of the world was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. He is the ultimate example of meaningful suffering as His death and resurrection provide forgiveness for the sins of all humanity—both Jews and Gentiles—by faith. If we submit our lives to Him, Yeshua also invites us to become like Him—someone who brings comfort and compassion to others experiencing suffering, enabling us to show God’s love to those who are suffering. We await His return, when He will wipe away every tear, and suffering will be no more—what joy awaits those who follow Him!