How Could There Be a Good God In a World Like This?
All of us recognize the fact that we live in a ‘less than perfect’ world. We all recognize that moral and natural evil abound. We all understand what it is to witness (or personally experience) these kinds of evil. We live in a world that is filled with crime, poverty, disease and natural disaster. And while we can talk about natural evil and moral evil in an analytical manner, in the end we need to address the manner in which we experience it. Evil presents itself to us individually through experiences of ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’. All of us have experienced some sort of pain; all of us have suffered in some way at one time or another. Theists and atheists alike have to account for the fact that the world is filled with pain and suffering, and atheists often see the existence of pain and suffering as evidence that God simply does not exist. Their argument goes something like this:
- If there is a God, He is, by definition, all powerful and all loving. In other words, if there is a God, he is a ‘good’ God.
- A good, all powerful and all loving God would not allow pain and suffering to exist in His created world
- Pain and suffering DO exist in our world
- Therefore, there is no good, all powerful, all loving God
It’s easy to see why skeptics might make this kind of case, and it’s important for all of us to think through the issues and see if this argument is actually true. Why would a good God allow pain and suffering? Wouldn’t a good God create a world in which His creation experiences nothing but comfort, love and immediate gratification? Wouldn’t a good God want to eliminate pain and suffering? We need to answer these questions, and as we look deeply for the answers, we just might uncover a few fallacies that are inhibiting our understanding of the role of ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’. Let’s look at these fallacies and see if it is possible for a good, all-powerful and all-loving God to create a world in which pain and suffering are an important part of His loving creation…
The Fallacy of ‘Comfort’
Let’s begin with a simple question: “Is it possible that a good God might not hold ‘comfort’ in the same esteem that we humans hold it?” In other words, is it possible that comfort isn’t all that we think it is? Think abut it for a minute. You and I know that we often SEEK pain in an effort to achieve some greater good. Let me give you an example. Have you ever been sore after a good work-out? Have you ever exercised and felt the pain of muscles that have been stretched and asked to do more than they ordinarily can do? We know that pain of this type is an indicator that we have exercised well and that this exercise will eventually produce an improved level of fitness! Have you ever exercised and NOT been sore afterwards? When that happens, don’t you wonder if you’ve pushed yourself hard enough? You see, we recognize that pain is often something we are willing to endure in order to achieve a greater goal. Sure, we could sit around in comfort, but we find ourselves looking forward to the soreness of a good work-out. The pain actually becomes a source of pleasure!
There is a sense among skeptics that a good God would be more interested in our comfort than anything else. For people like this, discomfort is actually a proof that God does not exist. But reason through this idea for a minute; are we really prepared to say that a ‘good’ God cares more about our comfort than our character? And if a good God, by definition, ought to care more about our character than our comfort, isn’t it reasonable that this same God might use pain to develop that character? Isn’t it reasonable that this good God might value the pain that eventually produces something desirable? As it turns out, this is exactly the kind of God that we, as Christians, believe exists. Christians understand that God might use pain and suffering to accomplish something wonderful. Suffering allows us to demonstrate love and compassion, and it develops a character that is mature and enduring:
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope
As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.
1 Peter 5:10
And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
You see, Christians don’t claim that God’s existence precludes the existence of pain and suffering. Instead, Christians have always claimed that God uses pain and suffering to accomplish a greater good. Comfort has never been that greater good; God’s goal has always been focused more on the issue of character.
The Bottom Line: A good God values character over comfort. Character is often best developed as a result of our experience of pain and suffering. God, therefore, allows some level of pain and suffering in order to develop our character.
The Fallacy of ‘Love’
Now let’s ask another important question: “Can we really call a God who uses pain to develop our character ‘loving’?” In other words, can a loving God justifiably allow the infliction of pain, regardless of whether or not some greater good might result down the road? In order to answer this question, we really need to understand the character of God related to the issue of ‘love’. The bible often describes God as ‘love’; the scripture also describes the nature of God as the perfect balance of mercy and justice. Love can therefore be described as the perfect combination of mercy and justice. This definition may seem unfamiliar to a world that sees love as the simple emotional response of mercy alone. But if we are to understand the role of pain and suffering in our world, we are first going to need to understand the balanced nature of God’s love.
Skeptics might argue that good character could be achieved by a loving God without ever having to use pain or suffering at all. They would surely argue that the idea of a loving God is inconsistent with His use of mental or physiological pain. Their view of a ‘loving’ God expects that such a God would never discipline humans with positive punishment, but would instead prod humans toward right behavior and character through positive reinforcement alone. They might offer the example of a dog owner who is trying to potty train his dog. If such an owner were to beat his dog every time it failed to do what he wanted, would we consider him to be a ‘loving’ owner? Wouldn’t we consider him to be a more loving master if he gave his dog a treat every time he successfully used the back yard? In a similar manner, a loving God would encourage and prod humans through pleasure rather than discipline humans through pain, wouldn’t He?
Well let’s take a look at the nature of love once more, and this time, let’s relate it to our own experience. If you are a parent (or have ever had a parent), you know that positive reinforcement (mercy) alone is simply not enough to change the behavior of children. We all would agree that children behave in ways that are both acceptable and unacceptable. Parents typically reward acceptable behaviors in an effort to encourage them. But when parents fail to punish unacceptable behavior, they are, in essence, encouraging this bad behavior as well. Most of us who have been parents recognize that it is simply not enough to reward what is acceptable. To fail to punish what is unacceptable is actually a reward in itself. When criminals stand in front of a judge, having been judged guilty of a crime, justice demands not only that they will fail to be rewarded, but that they will suffer an appropriate punishment. If the judge fails to be just toward those who have committed a crime, he fails to love those who have been victimized. Love requires the perfect balance of mercy and justice, and pain is often justly applied for the loving benefit of the object of our love. In a similar way, God often demonstrates His loving nature (His mercy, faithfulness, justice and power) in the midst of painful circumstances:
And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him.
In addition to this, we, as God’s children, are often conformed to the character of God through pain and suffering:
2 Corinthians 12:7
And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me — to keep me from exalting myself!
It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Thy statutes.
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.
You see, Christians have a very balanced view of ‘love’ that allows for the existence of pain and suffering. The Biblical worldview does not preclude the existence of God based simply on the existence of such pain and suffering, because it understands that the nature of ‘love’ includes the necessity for justice.
The Bottom Line: A loving God demonstrates the perfect balance between mercy and justice. Justice often requires the infliction of pain and suffering in order to achieve a greater good. God, therefore, allows some level of pain and suffering in order to maintain the just character of ‘love’.
The Fallacy of ‘Immediate Satisfaction’
Let’s ask one final question: “Why would a good, all-loving God create a world in which people suffer and die in unresolved pain, rather than live without pain?” In other words, why would a good God allow us to suffer or die unjustly, without the resolution (or satisfaction) of our pain or suffering? Many people suffer from disease or as the result of catastrophe, and they continue to suffer (or even die) before they can be cured or before their situation can be reversed. How can a good God allow such unresolved suffering? Wouldn’t a good God allow our sense of mercy and justice to be satisfied before we die? We need to address the fact that many people suffer great pain and NEVER experience earthly relief. If the Biblical God does exist, we need to understand the nature of ‘Biblical satisfaction’.
If atheists are correct, we humans have a very short life span. We live to about 80 years of age and then die in a state of fragility and decay. If atheists are right, we spend about 80 years living in a world in which pain and suffering often seem completely unwarranted and unjust; 80 years of slow decay in which we often experience growing pain, growing disappointment and growing suffering. From an atheistic perspective, life is a short and brutal ride, filled with unresolved pain. It’s understandable that the atheistic worldview related to the nature of human existence describes our mortal existence as a harsh and often unloving experience. An atheistic world is truly inconsistent with the existence of God.
But what if the atheistic view of human existence is completely inaccurate? What if human life is not limited to the 80 years we spend here on earth? What if humans, instead of living for 80 mortal years, are actually IMMORTAL by their very nature? Would this make a difference in how we understand the nature of pain and suffering as we experience it in the first 80 years? It might. Let me give you an example by way of an illustration.
Let’s imagine the life of a young lady (named Brittney) who has just purchased her first car, and let’s freeze her story in three specific places to evaluate the role of pain and suffering in her life. Brittney buys her first car after saving her money for many months. She does not have a wealthy family, so she purchases a used car (a 1990 Yugo) from a friend for $1000.00. The car runs great and it’s clean; she’s so happy to have it. On the first weekend after buying the car, she takes it down to the beach, driving it along the road overlooking the water. Let’s FREEZE Brittney’s story. Is life good for Brittney relative to pain and suffering? While life isn’t necessarily great (she is, after all, driving a 1990 Yugo!) we would have to agree that relative to pain and suffering, her life is pretty good. Now let’s continue…
As Brittney is driving by the beach, she is involved in a car accident. She is struck from the side by a drunken teenager in a Hummer. Her car is completely destroyed and she is critically injured. After the accident, she is lying in bed and her doctors tell her that both of her legs are broken. Brittney will require MONTHS of rehabilitation if she ever hopes to regain the life she once had. Brittney is in terrible pain; she can’t sleep and can barely move. Let’s FREEZE Brittney’s story once again. Is life good for Brittney relative to pain and suffering? No. It this point in her story, life is terrible. Brittney’s body is crippled with pain as she is innocently suffering the consequence of an accident that was clearly not her fault. Her car has been destroyed. If the story stops here, Brittney would have to say that life is NOT good. But there is just a bit more to Brittney’s’ story, so let’s continue…
For several months following the accident, Brittney is involved in intensive rehabilitation. She discovers a sense of determination and fortitude that she never realized she had. She is more patient and determined than ever before. Her rehabilitation training has resulted in a full recovery. She is completely pain free. In fact, one year after the accident, she is now in the best shape of her entire life. She has become a runner and enjoys a level of fitness previously unknown to her. And in addition to all of this, her insurance covered the replacement of her totaled car. She found a great deal and now owns a 2005 Honda (a vast improvement from the Yugo!). Years after the accident, Brittney has nearly forgotten the pain and suffering she once experienced, but she continues to live with the blessings that came out of that terrible time in her life. The accident seems like a short blink of an eye compared to the years that followed it. Let’s FREEZE Brittney’s story one last time. Is life good from the perspective of pain and suffering? Yes, Brittney’s life is good. She has been through much, but is now in better physical condition than ever before, has developed a determined and composed character that she did not have previously, and she is even driving a better car!
So, what does all of this have to do with our understanding of “immediate gratification”, pain and suffering? Well imagine if Brittney died just after the second FREEZE frame in her story. What if she died in that car accident? Would we feel as though God was fair with her? Would we doubt the existence of God due the way that Brittney experienced pain, suffered and died? I think we would. We want life to be a success story. We want a happy ending and we want the best that life has to offer right now (immediately). When we see people suffer without immediate resolution (and satisfaction), we begin to doubt the existence or goodness of God.
The atheistic worldview tells us that Brittney’s story ends at the second FREEZE frame. The atheistic worldview argues that all life is short and often ends in tragedy or decay. The atheistic worldview claims that life ends with mortal death and there is nothing more. This mortal life is all that we have. The Christian worldview, on the other hand, does not end at the second FREEZE frame. The Biblical worldview claims that all human life continues past the grave. Life doesn’t end with mortal death; the point of our physical death is merely the beginning of our eternal spiritual life! If this is true, we are simply traveling through this VERY brief existence on the way to an eternal life where NO pain or suffering can be experience (if we have trusted Jesus for our salvation):
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
John 17:14, 17
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world… They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.
1 John 2:15-17
Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
All these people (the faithful examples from the Old Testament) were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one.
You see, the Christian worldview has no problem explaining the existence of pain and suffering, not because it is calloused or ignorant to the existence of suffering around the world, but because it is certain of the true eternal nature of human existence. Christians can be patient for justice and mercy, because they know that this life is very brief compared to eternity. Christians know that whatever pain and suffering we might experience in this mortal life, it will be like a blink of an eye compared to eternity.
The Bottom Line: A loving God provides humans with an existence beyond the grave. All happiness, love, mercy and justice need not be satisfied immediately in this life, because all these desires will be satisfied in eternity. God, therefore, allows some level of pain and suffering because he knows (and has communicated) the fleeting, short nature of our mortal experience.
So, How Can God Exist?
So, how can a loving all-powerful God allow pain and suffering? The same way a loving father can allow his infant child to suffer the doctor’s needle. Imagine a parent bringing his infant into the doctor’s office for a flu shot. From the child’s perspective, the shot is terribly painful and unwanted. The infant does not feel as though he or she has done anything to deserve this, and has no desire to suffer through the experience. But the father knows better, even though the child simply cannot begin to understand what is happening. The father knows that the pain of the shot will protect the child; it will result in something that benefits the infant. And the father also knows that he is acting out of love, even though a painless day from the child’s perspective might seem like a more loving approach. The father knows that true love often requires him to allow some pain on the part of the child. And finally, the father knows that the pain of the shot is fleeting relative to the life of the child. For all these reasons, the fact that the father has allowed the pain of the shot does not negate his existence! It is completely reasonable to surmise that a good, loving father might allow pain and suffering for one of these three reasons, and in a similar way, it is completely reasonable to assume that a loving God might allow pain and suffering in our own lives.