Our church, along with many churches in the Chicago area, is doing a sermon series entitled “Explore God.” The series is based around seven questions relevant to the Christian faith, and to people exploring the Christian faith.

  1. Does Life Have a Purpose?
  2. Is There a God?
  3. Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
  4. Is Christianity Too Narrow?
  5. Is Jesus Really God?
  6. Is the Bible Reliable?
  7. Can I Know God Personally?

My plan is to write my own answers to these questions. I welcome engagement from people of all backgrounds in the comments or by email. I look forward to revisions and corrections that arise from that dialogue.

A peculiarity of my responses to the two previous questions is that I have not cited anything from the Bible in my arguments. This question, however, requires a response that is specific to the Christian faith.

The question of the reason pain and suffering in the world arises in two contexts: when we are confronted with pain and suffering in a personal way, and when, somewhat more abstractly, we ask why pain and suffering exist in the world. I certainly believe that the issue should be addressed in both context. This post, however, is aimed at the latter situation: the abstract intellectual question. I offer that disclaimer because if you are going through a time of pain and suffering, you probably do not want to think about the issue in abstract intellectual terms. It’s really when life is going okay that we have the capacity to think about these things more intellectually.

Some people may think that it’s better not to think about the problem in the abstract at all, but I think it is important to do so. If you lose someone in a plane crash, you’re not going to be comforted by an explanation of just what went wrong mechanically with the flight. But at some point that question does need to be asked. In the same way, we ought also to ask why pain and suffering are in the world, and why they persist.

Before addressing this question, I want to call attention to what the question presupposes: that there is pain and suffering, and that the existence of pain and suffering is a problem. That is a question that makes sense only in a moral world, and to reiterate, that should prompt us to ask where that morality comes from. It should also prompt us to ask where we got the idea that there could be existence without pain and suffering, because none of us has ever experienced such a world. What else in all of life is simultaneously as ubiquitous, and feels as out of place? Where do we get the good dream?

(Just to address a straightforward objection: it’s not simply that we seek pleasure and avoid pain. Back in my martial arts days, I always looked forward to sparring matches, even though it meant I was going to get punched. Obviously, the same punch received outside of a sparring match is a different experience. Everything depends on the moral situation. And just to flip it: a loving caress from a spouse is a very different thing from the same loving caress received when you’re traveling alone on public transportation. These things are not reducible to physical stimuli.)

The problem of pain and suffering is at the very heart of the Christian message. You can read the first three chapters of Genesis to learn about the Creation and the Fall. God made the world good. He did not create pain and suffering. That came as a result of disobedience. The story is perhaps familiar: given a paradise to live in, and the simple command not to eat from a particular tree, Adam and Eve disobeyed. This introduced sin into the world.

The command was, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Two observations are perhaps important: (1) knowledge in itself wasn’t the problem, but the ‘knowledge of good and evil’—as opposed to what they had, which was knowledge of good and evil only. (2) Adam and Eve did not die physically on the day that they ate the fruit. Whoever wrote Genesis certainly noticed this detail and expected later generations of readers to read intelligently. Adam and Eve did not die physically that day, but they died spiritually: becoming subject to death, and to the commission of all the subsequent sins of human history.

What this reveals is that, in the Bible, sin and death are two sides of the same coin. (A more theological word is ‘corruption’—which allows for things that make life bad but don’t kill you. I’ll stick with ‘death’ since it is a little easier, and deals with the extreme consequences of sin.) The implications of this are not as widely recognized as they ought to be. Wherever there is death, there is sin. Wherever there is sin, there is death. To oppose one is to oppose the other.

(Harry Potter fans will know that the followers of Lord Voldemort are called Death Eaters—a wonderfully vivid term, and in fact theologically accurate.)

So the Christian teaching is that death came into the world through sin. Humans are not naturally immortal (or incorruptible), but we had that status for as long as we remained joined to God. Sin is separation from God, and hence susceptibility to death. In Christian thought, this is simply how reality works. Death is not punishment for sin, any more than death is the punishment for ceasing to breathe oxygen. One simply implies the other. So, in the New Testament, Christ is described interchangeably as having destroyed the power of sin and the power of death.

Just to be clear on one point: pain and suffering are the result of sin (as an abstract noun; or the sin of Adam and Eve, if you prefer). The Bible does not teach the idea, and in several places specifically rejects the idea, that every bad thing that happens is attributable to the sin of the victim.

I would like draw out the implications of this a little more fully. If there is no sin, then there is no murder, no sexual abuse, no theft, no selfishness, no envy, no strife between people. (Although the problem of suffering from natural events is a real one, I believe that by far the majority of the suffering in the world is caused directly by other people.) If there is no death, then what terror do natural disasters hold? When death is off the table, a tsunami ceases to be a tragedy and becomes an opportunity to surf. If we weren’t concerned for our possessions and our lives, we would rebuild houses as cheerfully as children rebuild sandcastles. There is a lot of imaginative work to be done here. Sin, pain, and suffering are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine life without them, even as we despise them. Nevertheless, we can try…

At a fundamental level, then, the insight behind question that prompted this post is a Christian insight. Something is wrong with the world. It doesn’t need to be this way. And in fact, the story of Christianity is the story of what God did in response to the events of those first three chapters of Genesis.

As an aside, this is by no means automatic. Some religions teach that everything happens as the direct result of the will of God, inexorably. Some religions teach that pain and suffering are an illusion. Contrary to both of these approaches, Christianity teaches that pain and suffering are not okay, in fact that God has defeated them at great personal cost.

The “big picture” solution is that God has redeemed humanity (and in fact all of creation) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I’m skipping a lot of theology here, but let me leave a summary statement: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).

The Christian message, then, is that God is profoundly involved in our suffering. So far from ‘allowing’ pain and suffering, He has done everything possible (and a few things no one would have thought possible!) to fight against pain and suffering. Among humans it is a truism that people stay away in times of trouble, but God has done just the opposite for us; He’s come to join us in our suffering, and to rescue us from it.

As an intermediate summary then: God does not allow pain and suffering. He has fought against it from the beginning, has broken the power of sin and death in Christ, and will eventually bring that work to completion. An artist once attributed this words to God: “I love you much that it’s killing me.” He did not spare His own Son in His love for us. And we await the Second Coming of Christ, when the defeat of sin and death will be complete.

This leaves the question of timing. If God is going to destroy pain and suffering once and for all, why didn’t He just do that immediately? I do not have the answer to this question. Nevertheless, I think I can begin to imagine what some of the answers might be.

First, let’s consider some alternate scenarios in world history:

  1. Adam and Eve are created without the capacity or the opportunity to sin.
  2. Created free, Adam and Eve sin. God makes two new humans to replace them (and repeats the process as often as needed).
  3. Created free, Adam and Eve sin. Christ comes before anyone gets hurt.
  4. Christ returns in A.D. 1900, thereby heading off WWI and WWII, and the suffering that those conflicts entailed.

The first option is perhaps the most philosophically interesting. Why not create humans that could not have sinned? This question is not addressed in the Bible, but the thought throughout human history is that, if humans did not have a moral choice, they would be less than human. An ox does not have moral freedom. But for humans to be good—for them to be virtuous—there needs to be an opportunity for sin. Otherwise, there is no freedom and no virtue.

As a father I would be thrilled if my sons never made a mistake, but I would be a strange and demented father if I never gave them the opportunities to make mistakes—if I so contrived their environment that it was impossible to do wrong, or to get hurt. It’s obvious to me that, at some stage—and across cultures, the age varies considerably!—they have to make their own choices. The analogy is not perfect, because God is not simply a human father. But thinking about things in that way does help me to develop some kind of intuition about why God chose to make humanity free.

Or, suppose that, Adam and Eve having sinned, God destroyed them immediately and started afresh. I can only be grateful that God chose to redeem humanity, rather than destroying it. I think most of us will feel that way. (One does read on the BBC occasionally of a child who sues his parents over his existence, but I would tend to view those cases as either extreme cases of despair, or perhaps of a mental condition.)

The third and fourth options are probably the most difficult situations to answer. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who asked, if Christ could heal a blind person, why didn’t he just eliminate blindness entirely?

These scenarios—why couldn’t the world just have been slightly better? why couldn’t this one person be spared of disease?—of course get us into the particularities of our lives. Certainly I am prompted to think of some particular people in my life.

The temptation is to rationalize and to philosophize. A science fiction trope is that a time-traveler averts a tragedy in the past, only to find that this has produced disastrous consequences in the present day, as a result of some complicated chain of events. Lesson: even tragedies can serve some higher purpose. That might perhaps be an acceptable explanation if we weren’t dealing with real people and real lives. Dostoyevsky fans will recall that Ivan Karamazov had something to say about such explanations. But even intellectually, I doubt that every bad thing that happens is an inextricable element in a grand causal chain.

At this point—when we start to ask very specific questions about why this or that was allowed to happen—I really think we can’t do better than to trust that God has a plan, without speculating about what it might be. And really this is all that is possible. I couldn’t begin to understand the complexities of the people, events, and relationships of my own neighborhood. How much less the entire world? How much less for all of history?

Jesus told an interesting parable in this regard. Jesus’s parables are set in a realistic world, but (like many stories from the East) have an unconventional twist to them. The point is often not to answer a question, but rather to suggest a different one. With that background:

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30; see also Jesus’s subsequent explanation

The city-slickers among us need to be told explicitly that this was a ridiculously poor farming decision. You have to weed, or the plants won’t produce anything. (A pastor told me once—I believe in truth—that one year he decided to farm Jesus’s way, and he didn’t get many vegetables from his garden that year.) But the point of the parable is not to teach farming techniques.

The workers in the parable thought that they understood the goal: to get as much grain as possible. The farmer had different priorities: he didn’t want to hurt the young wheat plants. He is sacrificing his harvest in exchange for the little plants. It’s an incomprehensible decision. (And again for the non-farmers: a wheat plant is not something you invest in year after year, like a tree or a vine; it’s a one-off plant that gets burned or composted at the end of the season.)

What I like about this parable is that it doesn’t answer the question, but it does acknowledge it. Jesus is saying, “I acknowledge that my way of doing things doesn’t make sense to you.” The parable also gives us the hint that the farmer is thinking about the well-being of the little wheat plants, even if we don’t really understand how that works out.

On any given day, I will feel that this or that ‘weed’ could be pulled out without harming me. Sometimes the weeds of life are in fact pulled out. We are not given any particular explanation for the weeds that remain. Instead, we are left to trust God.

My conclusion, then, is that we really shouldn’t say that God permits pain and suffering. On the contrary, God has done everything needed to end pain and suffering (along with sin), to the point of giving up His own Son. God is not less bothered by pain and suffering than we are. God is not less invested in the fate of humanity than we are. That is a profound comfort to me, both when times are tough, and when I am thinking about the problem as an intellectual abstraction. I do not understand why the specifics aren’t different. I appreciate that Jesus acknowledged my confusion. I believe He can be trusted.