“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” (Gen 3:17-18).
Why does God allow evil and suffering in the world?
There is pain and suffering in the world because there is sin in the world. Humans do evil things to each other because they are sinners. We are all doing evil things to each other all the time. We kill and steal and deceive and mistreat. He will not stop us from doing the evil in our hearts. This is the path humanity chose. He cannot end evil without ending evil. He will do that one day, but not today. For today “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3:9). Until then, we live in the fallen world we created.
But what about natural evil? Couldn’t God at least stop the world from hurting us? That, too, is part of the curse for our sin. The world “will produce thorns and thistles for you”. The thorns and thistles are part of the punishment, but they are also for our benefit — they are “for” us. The pain and suffering caused by the natural world tells us that everything is not right with the world. It keeps us from getting too comfortable here.
Why is that a good thing? Because happy people in a fallen world have a hard time seeking God. We see time and again in scripture and in life that the poor and sick are much more open to the gospel than those who are sitting fat and happy. Does that seem cruel? It’s the opposite of cruel — it just recognizes our real need. “Suppose a person lives his entire life experiencing nothing but prosperity and happiness, yet dies without a right relationship with God. What has he gained? Actually, he has lost everything.”1
Humanity’s real problem is our separation from God. Not only are we alienated from our true purpose and nature, we are born on a course for damnation. “Man, as a species, spoiled himself, and ... good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.
“The Human spirit will not even begin to try and surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.”2
And so at times God puts us on our backs to make us look up. “It sometimes seems that it is only when suffering, pain, or grief invades our lives that we begin to be sober and direct our thinking toward the things of God in a significant way.”3
But that seems cruel to some. “Let me implore the reader to try to believe ... that God, who made [humans], may be really right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all of this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched.”2
Therefore real love does not seek to make broken people happy in their brokenness; it wants to make them recognize their brokenness and turn to the cure. If this sometimes seems worse than the disease, it’s because we have forgotten the ultimate outcome of the disease.
To speak of the cure brings us to the answer to the problem of evil.
“If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”4
As John Stott said, “I could never believe in God if it were not for the cross.”5 Whatever God is doing in our world, he did not insulate himself from the pain and suffering we face. He came down here and lived through the worst of it with us. He didn’t come as a king but as the poorest of the poor. He came as part of an oppressed religious and ethnic minority that lived under harsh totalitarian rule. And he suffered more than just a few years of physical pain.
“Just imagine every single pain in the history of the world, all rolled together into a ball, eaten by God, digested, fully tasted, eternally. In the act of creating the world, God not only said, let there be pretty little bunny rabbits and flowers and sunsets, but also let there be blood and guts and the buzzing flies around the cross. ... God’s answer to the problem of suffering is that he came right down into it.”6
In Christ, God suffered with us. Through Christ, God will heal the world and make everything right. One day those who responded to suffering by turning to God will see that it was all worthwhile. As Mother Teresa said, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
One day we will live in a world with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4). Justice will be done. God will right every wrong. We will see the glory achieved by our “light and momentary troubles” (2Cor 4:17) and know that it was all worth it. The God who always keeps his word has promised it.
You should definitely go deeper on this topic. The single best book I’ve found on the subject is CS Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, but any of the books below would be worthwhile.
1 Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life
2 CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
3 RC Sproul, Surprised by Suffering
4 Tim Keller, The Reason for God
5 John Stott, The Cross of Christ
6 Peter Kreeft in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith
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Part of Christianity 101