Faith in the Face of Evil and Suffering? The Answer of the Suffering God
On 6th February 2023 a monumental catastrophe hit southern Turkey and Northern Syria: an earthquake which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale left more than 57000 people dead and millions displaced. The sheer number of lives lost, as well as those destroyed by injury, bereavement, homelessness, is simply beyond our comprehension. Despite the unfathomable numbers, each one represents an individual. A father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a friend. In one haunting photograph a man sifts through rubble earnestly seeking the son he hopes is still alive. How can such devastation ever be quantified or grasped?
Almost one year to the day before the Turkey-Syria earthquake, another global catastrophe of a distinctly different kind, began. Thursday 24th February 2022 saw Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the beginning of much bloodshed and desolation. Our TV screens showed millions of people ripped from their homes, fleeing for their lives. Stories were shared of families torn apart, loved ones lost. Many women fled with their children as their husbands stayed to fight, unsure if this would be the last time they would see one another. As the conflict gathered momentum, many churches across Europe opened their doors for extended times of prayer for the people of Ukraine, seeking God to bring an end to the terror. More than one year later, the conflict rages on.
The question that haunts many people is: “Where is God in the midst of evil and suffering?” The challenges presented to faith in the face of such devastation are far more powerful than any given by philosophy or science. That is because suffering is no mere academic issue. The two examples given above represent real lives destroyed and lost. And neither are they isolated incidents. Across our world, within our nation, perhaps in our own personal lives, suffering is a constant reality. And yet the Bible tells us that “God is love”.1 Is it really possible to believe in the God of the Bible - who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good - indeed love itself - in the face of the reality of evil and suffering? And, if so, is He a God worthy of our worship?
Writing in the wake of the Turkey-Syrian earthquake, the atheist philosopher Nigel Warburton answers in the negative. He writes,
If you want to persist in belief in a benevolent God who intervenes in human affairs, you will have to work very hard to explain why this kind of devastation was allowed to occur. One way out would be to shrug your shoulders and say “God moves in mysterious ways”. That always seems a cop-out to me. By far the simplest explanation is that there is no God, and certainly not a good one.2
Many Christian apologists will argue that, if God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil, we could continue to believe reasonably in an all-powerful, all-good God in the face of the suffering we witness. Such a reason may be easier to identify in some cases than in others. Philosophers like Warburton make the helpful distinction between natural evil and moral evil. The Turkey-Syria earthquake is an example of the former. Things occur in the natural world which are nobody’s fault. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions: these are not the result of human error or evil actions but simply reflect how the world is. By contrast, the Russian invasion of Ukraine serves as an example of moral evil: people choose to do awful and inhumane things which cause devastation and tragedy.
In cases of moral evil, one could perhaps argue more easily for a morally sufficient reason for God to allow it than in cases of natural evil. The reason that is typically suggested is human freedom. If human freedom is in some way essential to us having a true relationship with God, then it comes with a price. People must be free to reject the love and goodness of God, and this opens the door to the possibility of evil actions. Perhaps human freedom, for the purpose of making a true relationship with God possible, provides a morally sufficient reason for the possibility of evil and suffering. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, alongside every other evil human action, is a tragic yet necessary possibility in a world in which people can freely choose to love God. Such evil is not caused by God and those who perpetrate it will one day be held to account.
Natural evil presents a whole other challenge. No individual is responsible for the Turkey-Syrian earthquake, nor for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which took the lives of nearly 23,000 people, nor for the recent eruption of Mount Merapi in Indonesia. Thankfully, on that occasion, no casualties were reported but, when the same volcano erupted in 2010, 347 people were killed and some 20,000 people were made homeless. Surely God could have prevented such disasters without compromising human freedom in any way? Sceptics will often say that natural evil is gratuitous: there is no good achieved through natural evil that could not have been attained without it. Would not an all-powerful, all-good God do away with all evil which did not serve to fulfil a morally sufficient reason?
Again, some Christians respond by saying that, with our limited capacities, we are simply in no position to judge whether God has a greater purpose for natural evil. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, writes,
Once we contemplate God’s providence over the whole of history, then it becomes evident how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability of God’s having morally sufficient reasons for the evils that we see.3
The distinction between moral evil and natural evil is helpful, but often the two are not so easily separated. Consider the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. This was fundamentally an act of natural evil, and yet corrupt practices by people who were responsible for the poor-quality buildings and the delay in getting aid to casualties resulted in the loss of many more lives than needed to be. Often, we hear of drought, famine and disease in many parts of the world resulting in avoidable deaths. Sometimes such devastation is compounded by corrupt governments not allowing aid to get to where it needs to be and creating conditions in which such suffering is allowed to continue.
The Bible details for us the moment at which evil and suffering entered into the world. In its account, once again, separating the moral from the natural is no easy task. Adam and Eve freely ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil - the first case of moral evil in the history of the world. But the curse that God inflicted as a result affected the whole of the created order:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”4
The once perfect, fruitful land, now existed in a state of hostility towards Adam and Eve. The Bible does not, therefore, allow for a clear-cut distinction between moral evil and natural evil. At source they are intrinsically connected: the natural evil that we witness today is bound together with the moral sin of Adam and we now live in a world far from the perfection in which it was created. We live in a world that is fallen. Perhaps this provides a better way of understanding natural evil. Rather than assuming there must be a possible, overarching good to come from every devastating news headline, one might say it is part and parcel of a fallen world for suffering to occur that does not have any higher good or purpose attached to it.
Considerations such as those given above play an important role in answering Warburton’s argument that the evil and suffering we see should lead us to atheism. They show that it is, indeed, possible to believe in an all-powerful, all-good God in the face of the Turkey-Syrian earthquake or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. God could have morally sufficient reason for allowing such evil and suffering, and our world is fallen and under the curse brought through that first human sin. Important though these points are, if we were to stop there, they remain deeply unsatisfying. To the grieving parent, the sick child, the displaced refugee, or the injured civilian, talk of ‘morally sufficient reasons’ or ‘fallen worlds’ might seem, not only irrelevant to their suffering, but even cold and cruel. Such arguments speak to our intellect, but they do little for people’s lived experience. If this is all Christianity has to offer then there is no comfort to be gained from it in the valley of despair, no light of hope to be seen on the dark path, and nothing to sustain us when evil and suffering come our way.
At the very heart of Christianity, however, lies a much deeper response to the problem of evil and suffering. More than just a mere answer as to why evil and suffering occurs, God has revealed His solution and, through it, has brought hope into even the most hopeless of circumstances. And it comes to us in the form of a cross.
The Romans knew how to make a person suffer. Crucifixion is amongst the most unspeakable horrors devised by man. The condemned would often be beaten to within an inch of their lives then forced to carry the beam of their cross before baying, bloodthirsty crowds. Stripped naked and barely able to stand, they would be nailed hand and foot to the cross. They had to push themselves up on the nails that pinned them to the cross in order to breathe. Subject to the elements, and to hungry birds and wild animals, the agony could last for days. If they decided the crucified victim was taking too long to die, the soldiers would break their legs so they could no longer breathe. Death by crucifixion was an agonising form of asphyxiation.
The great mystery at the heart of the Bible is that God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, entered into His own creation and became subject to the fallenness that came through Adam. He knew what it was to lose friends, to be betrayed and abandoned, to be falsely accused, to be beaten and humiliated and, yes, to undergo the horrors of the cross. That God should experience suffering in this way is astounding. But there is a far deeper element to Christ’s suffering. Earlier we quoted part of God’s judgement against the sin of Adam and Eve. But hidden within that judgement was a glimmer of hope. For God says to the serpent,
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.5
In other words, although that very first sin, that initial act of moral evil which brought corruption to every individual and to the entire created order, was subject to the just judgement of God, yet God was going to send Someone who would undo the work of the serpent. He would open up the way for human beings to be welcomed back into the living presence of God and would one day reverse, for all time, the curse of sin. All evil, moral and natural, all suffering, would be done away with forever and a Kingdom of perfect joy and peace would endure forever.
As Jesus hung upon the cross, He suffered not just the physical agony of the nails and scourgings and the emotional suffering of His betrayal and lost loved ones. Jesus suffered the spiritual agony of bearing the sin of the world, enduring the Father’s righteous anger against sin so that justice may finally be satisfied and the way made open to come to God once more.
As we look at the cross, then, we do not see a lesser god unable or unwilling to get involved in evil and suffering. We see the Almighty God enter into our evil world, be made subject to suffering, bearing it in His body so as to defeat evil and suffering and bring us through to a place where it no longer exists. And indeed, three days after being buried, the God of the cross became the God of the empty tomb. Death has been replaced by life, darkness by light and sorrow by the promise of eternal joy. This is the God who knows our sufferings in a first-hand way and who brings hope into our world of evil and suffering.
As we consider the immense evil and suffering across our world, or in our own personal lives, we do not have all the answers. But we have something far more precious. We have Jesus the suffering God who, through suffering, brings the light of hope to every situation we may go through. It is to the cross, and not to the philosophy books, that we must turn to find God’s ultimate answer to our fallen world.
As I write this, Easter is drawing close. The time when Christians spend time focussing upon Christ, His suffering and, ultimately, His victory over sin, death and evil. As we celebrate Easter, whatever challenges evil and suffering bring to us, let us remember it will not have the last say for those who have placed their trust in Jesus. May we be those who know the certainty of God defeating the curse of sin and may we have our hope firmly in Him.
1. 1 John 4:8