Answer One Big Question: “If There is a God, Then Why is There so Much Suffering in the World?”

We all have embarrassing moments.  Some of them take years to be able to laugh about. 

One of mine happened in high school French class. The assignment was to memorize and recite a paragraph length French passage of our choosing.  I decided I would cut corners and recite a prayer I had already learned in French from an earlier class in junior high school.  I practiced like a fiend, but practice doesn’t help much when you rehearse and learn the wrong way. My pronunciation was so bad my French could have passed for Pig Latin.  Plus when the time came, I froze up in the middle of my recitation, suddenly blanking out like people do when they desperately don’t like to recite things in foreign languages to barely interested audiences. 

Aside from the teacher sitting there, I guess I could have made up some jibber-jabber and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, I stood there, deeply horrified that I was. Just. Standing. There.         

Sometimes people ask common questions and we Christians freeze up as well, like, “If there’s a God, then why is there so much suffering in the world?” Logic, opinions, sermons, and podcasts logjam in your brain as you try to figure out what to say first.  But the more complex we are, the harder it will be to respond.  Let’s break down the process in steps.

    1. I’m going to suggest first asking yourself if this is a real question, or only someone trotting out objections from the Skeptic’s Encyclopedia.
    2. If it is a real question, ask if the inquirer would be willing to invest five-ten minutes to get an answer. 
    3. Have a reference ready to go—a book and chapter of the Bible on tap for occasions such as these.  No need to remember how to do the rhetoric involved; you only need the name of the book and the chapter number.  The text inside the chapter will jog your memory. 
    4. Don’t try to win an argument.  Remember, you’re hoping for interaction, not just monologue.  You are the inquirer’s friend, and assistant in learning truth, while being a student of truth yourself.  
    5. If the inquirer disagrees with the biblical testimony, then they disagree.  No need to force your view on them. Naturally, we pray for a good outcome, but if they reject what the Bible says, that rejection is ultimately between them and God.        

As a test case, let’s deal with a philosophical concern—“If there is a God, then why all the suffering in the world?”  My response usually starts with something extremely simple: “This world is currently not the way God made it.” 

I back this up with the book of Genesis.  My chapter number is 3. That chapter of the Bible is a complete disruption of the perfect things God had set about doing in chapters one and two. Very little of what God did there is the same after chapter 3.  

First though, a little set-up:  God had delivered a warning to the first man Adam in chapter 2. 

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (vv. 16-17).

There was only one command in that primeval garden.  Adam wasn’t told to do a lot of things, just not to do one thing.  Nor was God’s command mysterious, like a secret agent in his spy car who says, “Whatever you do, don’t push that green button!”   God explained why the man shouldn’t eat from that particular tree, warning him that he would die. His human beauty would die, his innocence would die, his harmony with God and others would die, and his unrestricted access to God would die.  It was a command of good will on God’s part.

In the same way, there’s a reason why we tell our kids not to drink Drano, or stick things in wall sockets, or eat paint chips.  It has nothing to do with being a killjoy. We don’t want them to die.  

This is where chapter 3 comes in.  Satan, ever the debunker and rationalizer, convinced Eve there would be no consequences if she broke God’s command.

As it turned out, there were nothing but consequences.  

After eating the forbidden fruit, the man and woman who had previously walked with God in the garden, now “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (v. 8).  This was the first and greatest sign that something had gone wrong. Now the world is full of people alienated from their Creator. They avoid and hide from Him, even hating Him, and if they seek deity of any sort, they look for something they have created, and not what created them.   This short verse portends the confusion of world religion, and its collective efforts to cover up with “fig leaves” (v. 7).  

God said to the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (v. 16).   Before healthcare improvements, childbirth was a dangerous process that often proved fatal. The pain of it was the most bitter in all the ancient world. Yet even with the advent of modern anesthesia, pain related to children has far from disappeared.  It is not only physical, but even more frequently, emotional in nature. The brunt of sorrow often especially attaches itself to a mother, who seems particularly punished by the ill-advised choices and risks of her offspring.  Mother-daughter relationships can be among the most strained of these. At any rate, parental pain debuts here, with a spotlight on the woman, and a reservoir of female tears and sleepless nights since the world began.   

God continued, saying to her, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband and he shall rule over you.”¹  And so a struggle for personal domination and mastery would grow between husband and wife.  She would attempt to overthrow him, not because of his gentle, loving headship, but due to his overbearing, harsh rule.  Today’s gender struggle with its endless point/counterpoint, power plays, and assertions is a tug-of-war that finds its unfortunate genesis in this verse.    

Then to Adam, God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you you shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the plants of the field” (v. 17-18).  As the man works to support his family, his efforts are no longer greeted with easy success. Pain is the key word here. As the man attempts to provide for his family, to make a living, his best efforts often come to nothing. His sweat nets him little, and he feels the aches and pains of labor no longer blessed. This quiet desperation will later grow into the serious side effects of global poverty, and the idolatrous stockpiling of wealth to stave off that poverty.   

Verse 19 says, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This is a tedium without purpose and without rest, a dreary existence spent trying to last another day above ground, until finally, despite his best efforts, the man dies. His body and his work end in dust. And this is the greatest enemy of all—death, both spiritual and then to a lesser extent, physical.  We spend our short earthly tenure tormented either by the grief of it, or the fear of it. And, like a virus it has proliferated everywhere.          

These sufferings almost immediately began to metastasize.  Following chapter 3, we’ll see the first few murders ever committed, and the perversion of the one-man-one-woman marriage model into polygamy.  We’ll see the introduction of weapons, idle amusements, and commerce. By chapter 6:5, the Bible says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” 

Who should we blame for all this?  

The whole sad scenario is like someone giving you a gift in a box marked “Fragile,” and telling you to be careful with it.  But as soon as that friend walks off, you toss the package into the back of your pickup, let it tumble around on the way home, then open the box to discover priceless 1935 Hummel figurines…smashed to pieces.  You could say this proves your friend is at fault, that he is not good, or that your friend does not exist. Of course, nonsense of that sort will not do.  

We must own our responsibility for the shape the world is in, beginning with the first couple.  It is a choice they made, and one that we make worse with every passing day.    

And yet, though God does not erase the consequences of our poor decision, in His love, He has sent a Savior, Jesus Christ (whose coming was hinted at in Genesis 3:15).  Christ’s grace in dying for us and rising from the dead enables us to go through the sufferings of this life. Not only so, but He delivers us from it in phases until we reach the full glory of freedom at His second coming. 

Meanwhile, every attempt to circumvent the consequences of Adam’s fall, to fix ourselves, or fix each other without Christ, only invites further damage. 

We must accept nothing less than a bloodied cross and an empty tomb.

 

¹ Some other versions of the Bible and earlier editions of the English Standard Version read, “Your desire will be for your husband.”  By admission of scholars however, this is a difficult verse to translate from the Hebrew.  The word “For” also shows up in the very next chapter (Genesis 4:6), where God warns Cain that “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  The word “for” in that verse is neither positive, nor romantic.  Sin wishes to take over Cain, and Cain must resist.  “For” is therefore combative and contrary.

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