Dr. Vince Vitale
In one of the first significant conversations I had on this topic, my Aunt Regina expressed to me how difficult it is to see her son Charles – my cousin – struggle with a serious mental illness.
Putting the question before the questioner, I started spouting some of my abstract, philosophical ideas about why God might allow suffering. But after listening very graciously, Aunt Regina turned to me and said, “But Vince, that doesn’t speak to me as a mother.”
Suffering is very real and very personal, and since that conversation with my aunt I am always hesitant to address it briefly. Here I will try to provide a few starting points for further thought and prayer, but please forgive me if anything I say comes across as if I am not taking seriously any real life suffering you are dealing with. My hope is this will not be the case, and that amid the suffering of this world each of us will find strength, comfort, and meaning in the community of those who have put their trust in Jesus Christ.
Let me begin to sketch four approaches to thinking about the challenge of suffering. If you are interested in reading more about these and a variety of other responses, Ravi Zacharias and I have written the book Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.
- The Limits of Human Knowledge
One of the assumptions smuggled into the thought that suffering disproves the existence of God is this:
If God has good reasons for allowing suffering, we should know what those reasons are.
But why think that?
When parents decide to move their family from one city to another, this can be very difficult for a young child. In the moment, the child might be certain that all happiness is behind him, that his parents hate him, and that for all practical purposes his life is over.
And yet even such outrage on the part of a child does not mean that the child’s parents are wrong to make the move, and it does not mean that they don’t love him. In fact, it’s very likely that it was precisely the good of their children that weighed heavily in the parents’ decision.
You can see the analogy: If parents’ reasons are sometimes beyond what a child can fully grasp, why then should we be surprised when some of God’s reasons are beyond what we can fully grasp? This general approach is referred to as ‘Skeptical Theism’ in academic philosophy. But it’s not a new idea:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.”
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
If God is as great as Christians claim he is, then sometimes not fully grasping the fullness of his reasons is exactly what we should expect. And if it’s exactly what we should expect to find if God does exist, then our finding it can’t be strong evidence that God does not exist.
- A Response of Freedom
What kind of world God would have made depends on what God values. According to Christianity, what God values above all is relationship. But for relationship to be meaningful, it must be freely chosen; for relationship to be freely chosen, there must be the possibility of it being rejected; and wherever there is the possibility of rejecting relationship, there is also the possibility of pain and suffering.
The Bible affirms this truth from its very first pages. We find a story of people who are in intimate relationship with God, but then they hear this voice in their ears: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). And they begin to doubt the words of God.
Then they sin. Not a big sin, just eating a piece of fruit that they were told not to eat. No big deal, right? But it starts them down a path. First we’re told that they felt shame. They were convinced that God wouldn’t want anything to do with them anymore, and so they hid themselves from God. Perhaps some of us can relate to that.
Next they begin accusing each other. Adam pointed at Eve and said “She did it!” – in essence pointing his finger at God as well by referring to Eve as “the woman you put here with me” (Genesis 3:12) – and Eve pointed at the serpent and said “He did it!”
From temptation to doubt to disobedience to shame to hiding to finger-pointing to suffering – is there really a question about whether this story speaks the truth about the human heart? When I read it, I have to admit that it resounds with the truth about me.
But here’s the most amazing part of the Fall story. The first persons have rejected God. They’ve decided they’d rather be their own gods. And how does God respond? He goes looking for them; he pursues them; he calls out to them: “Where are you” (Genesis 3:9)?
Then we’re told that God “made garments of skin for Adam and [Eve]” (Genesis 3:21). In an ancient Middle Eastern culture this is the exact opposite of what should have happened. Their clothes should have been torn to symbolize their disgrace. Instead God made garments for them. And not only that but the text gives this beautiful detail: “and [He] clothed them.” Imagine the intimacy of God pulling a shirt over your head and carefully guiding your arms through the sleeves, before kneeling down to tie your shoelaces.
God dressed Adam and Eve himself, so that they would not be ashamed, foreshadowing that one day he would clothe us in Christ (Galatians 3:27), with the best robe (Luke 15:22), with power from on high (Luke 24:49). Right from the very beginning, it is in God’s response to suffering that we see the love of God most clearly, a love that refuses to give up on us even when we use our free will to cause great suffering.
- What It Takes to Be You
It’s typical to think of the problem of evil like this: we picture ourselves in this world of suffering; then we picture ourselves in a world with far less suffering. And then we wonder, “Shouldn’t God have created us in the other world – the world with far less suffering?”
That’s a reasonable thought. But I think it’s a thought that relies on a philosophical mistake. It relies on the assumption that it would still be you and me who would exist in that other world. And that is highly controversial. Let me explain.
There was a pivotal moment early on in my parents’ dating relationship. They were on their second date. They were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the picturesque New York City skyline, and my dad noticed a ring on my mom’s finger. So he asked about it, and she said, “Oh, that’s just some ring one of my old boyfriends gave me. I just wear it ‘cause I think it looks nice.”
“Oh, yeah, it is nice,” my dad said. “Let me see it.”
So mom took it off and handed it to him, and my dad hurled it off the bridge and watched it sink to the bottom of the East River! “You’re with me now,” he said. “You won’t be needing that anymore.”
And my mom loved it!
But what if she hadn’t? What if she had concluded my dad had lost it and ran off with her old boyfriend instead? What would that have meant for me?
I might be tempted to think I could have been better off. I might have been taller. I might have been better looking. Maybe the other guy was royalty. That would have been cool! I could’ve lived in a castle!
But, actually, that’s not right. There’s a problem with wishing my mom wound up with the other guy, and the problem is this: ‘I’ never would have existed.
Maybe some other child would have existed. And maybe he would have been taller and better looking and lived in a castle. But part of what makes me who I am – the individual that I am – is my beginning: the parents I have, the sperm and egg I came from, the combination of genes that’s true of me.
Asking “Why didn’t God create me in a world with far less suffering?” is similar to saying “I wish my mom had married the other guy.” I’m sure my mom and her old boyfriend would have had some very nice kids, but ‘I’ would not have been one of them.
Why didn’t God create a very different world? When this world fell into ruin, why didn’t God give up on it and start over? Well, it depends on what God values. And what if one of the things he values – values greatly and unconditionally – is you, and the people you love, and every person you see walking down the street.
Sometimes we wish God had made a very different sort of world, but in doing so we unwittingly wish ourselves out of existence. And so the problem of suffering is reframed in the form of a question:
Could God have wronged you by creating a world in which you came to exist and are offered eternal life, rather than creating a different world in which you never would have lived?
- The God Who Suffers with Us
A fourth response to the objection from suffering I take, somewhat ironically, from Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote,
The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory [response to the problem of suffering] ever invented.[ii]
Nietzsche is actually writing of the ancient Greeks here, and in his bias he doesn’t make the connection to Christianity! But as a Christian, I am very pleased to agree with him and then point emphatically to the cross where Jesus died.
At the cross, we see the absolute uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering. In Islam, the idea of God suffering is senseless – it is thought to make God weak. In Buddhism, to reach divinity is precisely to move beyond the possibility of suffering. Only in Christ do we have a God who is loving enough to suffer with us. And because of that unsurpassable love, we can trust the Bible when it says that one day “[God] will wipe every tear from [our] eyes,” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
Dr. Vince Vitale is Director of The Zacharias Institute and a speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Vince has co-authored two books with Ravi Zacharias: Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (2014) and Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ (2016).
[i] Portions of this article are taken from Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (2014), which is co-authored by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale.
[ii] Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Francis Golffing (translator), The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1956, p. 30. This quotation is taken from The Birth of Tragedy.