In pursuit of a commonality by which we can carry out honest dialogue about God, and at the risk of sounding grim, I believe this will be a suitable starting point. I would be surprised if there was a single person on this planet, whether rich or poor, young or old, black or white, who has not tasted the sting of suffering and death. While there are many great, lighthearted, and enjoyable moments in this life, they unfortunately do not rid us of the dark ones.
A Painful Reality
Perhaps you have experienced your family being slowly torn apart by the painstaking process of divorce. Maybe you have witnessed the gradual deterioration and suffering of a loved one to cancer. Or possibly you have been beaten down by your depression to the point that you no longer find your life of value or purpose. Perhaps you have witnessed the horrors of war. You may have even been a victim of abuse, harassment, anger, betrayal, exploitation, or discrimination. And we must not forget the many in this world suffering from tremendous poverty and oppression every day. These are all terrible realities that severely impact our lives. A common question that arises when we reflect on these experiences of grief and misery is “If there truly is a “good” God, then why does He allow this?”.
Before jumping to conclusions and pointing our finger angrily at God, we need to take a step back and look at this with some perspective. The more common Christian view on this matter is that there was a time when the entire Universe, including Earth, its natural order, the animal kingdom, and humanity itself was created without the impact of sin and death. In fact, in the Bible, it says “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31, ESV). For all of Creation to be declared “very good” by a good God would mean that suffering and death must not have been a part of nature in the beginning. I know this is hard to picture, being that we can’t forget the effect that suffering and death has had on us. But even granting that the biblical account of Creation is true, our questions regarding suffering and death still remain.
Many of the sufferings we experience in this life, although not all, are the effect of human sinfulness. This is in accordance with causality. In other words, by one person freely sinning against another, they cause a negative effect on the life of another person. However, while this answers something most of us can understand, we still must address a few more questions. What about the origin of sin itself? And why are “natural” occurrences such as disease, disaster, and particularly death a part of our reality?
Where Did We Go Wrong?
Like many of the important questions in life, when we consider answering a question like why suffering and death exist, we are left with only what our limited human faculties will allow us to know. And left to our abilities alone, we can generally observe the “what”, study the “how”, but can’t quite put a finger on the “why”. But as Christians, we claim to have been granted a viable description for the origin of this problem from God Himself. Perhaps, if you are a skeptic or not a Christian, you just rolled your eyes? Well, I know how that sounds. But given the implications of the reality of death, it would be wise to at least open up to seriously considering these issues with the real possibility of God’s existence in mind. In fact, you may even learn a thing or two about the Christian view.
To summarize, I will very briefly describe the latter part of the creation account in Genesis 1-3. The first created humans (Adam & Eve) were given the freedom to choose how to interact with the world, each other, and God. They were created sinless and innocent while in harmonious relationship with God. He gave them the ability to freely choose to trust and follow His commands. They were also given dominion & stewardship over the entire planet. God sustained their prosperous and peaceful lives, free of sin and death, so long as they showed love for Him by keeping His commands and obeying one rule. He told them “…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” (Gen 2:17, ESV). It is important to realize that if they did not have the ability to be disobedient to God’s holy standard, then they would not be free to choose between doing “good” or “bad”. But the devil (An angelic being who was cast from Heaven for striving to become like God) tempted them to disobey the holy standards of God. Therefore, from Adam (the head of humanity) the curse of sin was enacted as God had promised and the effects of sin were upon humanity and all of Creation.
Death is now a reality. The shadow of sin will now always marr and taint what God originally created to be good. The enemy of God, Satan, in partnership with the disobedience of mankind, brought this curse of sin and death upon us. But, as we continue to work through these issues, we will realize this cannot be, and is not, the end of the story.
The Big Question
So then, if indeed sin nature is something we each possess and we are accountable for our choices that cause sin, then would our sins against a holy God make Him responsible for our choices? Or are we responsible for our own actions? Have we not freely chosen to lie, steal, cheat, slander, betray, etc., a multitude of times in our life? You may think to yourself “Don’t people start off with a clean slate and are generally good”? I would ask you then, how do young children learn to steal, hit, be selfish, and lie? You don’t have to teach a child to misbehave, they naturally will do so from a rather young age. But we are expected to teach them the right way to go. And this relationship is not dissimilar to God’s relationship with humanity. In fact, the parent-child relationship appears to be designed to represent this.
We have very briefly discussed the Christian view of the cause of sin and its effect on humanity and all of Creation. Although, a deeply disconcerting question remains. If God is truly good, loving, and all-powerful, then how could He allow people to suffer and die? I confess, this question has plagued my mind often. But then I take pause. I call to remembrance the benefits of the spiritual, emotional, and mental growth and self-evaluation that has stemmed from the sufferings that I have been through, even the worst of them. And I reflect on the understanding, wisdom, and love that has been cultivated by those sufferings. I can now see how each hardship I have endured has only served to turn me toward God and His ways rather than my own. I also remember that, according to my Christian faith, death is not the end and through God’s mercy and grace in Christ, I am offered hope for an eternal life after death that is void of all sin, suffering, and death.
Does God allow horrible events to occur because of a currently unforeseeable and unknowable greater good due to our human limitations? I think He does. I do know that if it weren’t for the reality of death and the pervasiveness of sin and suffering in this world, we would not desire to turn to God in the first place. Though we don’t see Him, we still consider His ways. Throughout history, suffering has caused even the proudest of men to turn to God. But why? Perhaps there is a divine purpose behind suffering and death after all. Consider this quote by one of the finest thinkers of the twentieth century:
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” – C.S. Lewis
I realize that this article does not answer every question on this subject, nor does it intend to. And I know it does not fully answer the question of why God allows suffering and death. In fact, I am taking pains to explain this without being too exhaustive. If you are not a Christian, or if you are and are struggling with this problem, I will leave you with this. Does your worldview, or any worldview, sufficiently answer these same questions? Not many can answer such metaphysical questions, let alone answer them well. It is my belief that upon investigating the Christian worldview, it provides the most sufficient evidence and reasonable explanation for answers to these questions.
The truth of the matter is that regardless of your profession, eating habits, religion, or work out regime, death is a part of life that we truly cannot hide from. The gravity and proximity of the ever looming shadow of death can either haunt us, cause us to do everything that we can to avoid the problem, or to embrace its reality and respond to it. Is there more than death that we all have in common? Can we find real purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in this life? Is there really hope for life beyond death? And if so, what does God have to do with it? These issues are discussed in the next article, Bridging the Gap (Pt. 3): Love Re-Defined.
Please follow, like, share, comment, and feel free to send me your feedback and suggestions! And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the previous article, Bridging the Gap!