Apologetics: Facing Suffering

John Gillespie is Senior Teaching Fellow with the C.S. Lewis Institute Belfast and one of the team teaching on Reality 316, an Apologetics and Worldview Course run by Portrush Presbyterian Church. Emeritus Professor of French teaching at Ulster University, he researches and publishes on Christianity and Modern Thought.


God and Suffering

On the RTE show The Meaning of Life a few years ago, when asked by Gay Byrne what he would say to God at the Pearly Gates, Stephen Fry replied:

‘Bone cancer in children. What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault! It's not right, it's utterly, utterly evil! Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That's what I would say.’

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People were shocked by his emotional response. But they really shouldn’t have been. Many find it hard to understand why children suffer, why we see mothers with young families dying of cancer, why people die ‘before their time’. Even C.S. Lewis, so strong in his faith, wrestled with doubt and depression after the death from cancer of his wife Joy Davidman, a struggle outlined so helpfully in A Grief Observed.

The problems of suffering and evil are major obstacles to belief in God for many, and the most difficult problem that Christians and the Christian church have faced over the centuries. The problem was posed most pointedly by David Hume, the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment thinker:

‘Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’

Suffering: The Secular Problem

Of course suffering is only a problem if you believe in God. If you don’t, although it will be a difficult practical problem, there can be no expectation that the universe or the world have been personally designed for your comfort and happiness. For the modern man believes the world is merely physical phenomena arising out of random, mindless evolution. As Richard Dawkins puts it in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:

"‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation… In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme nor reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.’

We are just there, things happen, people get hurt, people die. We are on our own. Life doesn’t mean anything. So the best we can do is avoid or mitigate suffering. Such secular beliefs are unable to provide answers to, or comfort in, suffering. Indeed many with a secular worldview turn to Christianity or other belief systems in the face of death or suffering.

Suffering: The Problem for Christians

But for Christians it is still a problem. We can advance a number of arguments to help us understand it:

1/ We can say that pain and suffering are part of living in a world of the senses in which we have individual agency. If we fall we can get hurt. We live in a world where people have freedom to act.

2/ We can say there is suffering which is essential or beneficial for everyday life: the pain we feel if we put our hands too close to a fire; the pain we feel that shows us that we have broken a limb; the discomfort we feel when we are training to run a marathon or trying to lose weight and so on. This kind of suffering we can understand and welcome.

3/ We can agree that people who commit evil acts, such as murder or child abuse for instance should suffer because of what they have done.

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Indeed we can make the point that most of the suffering in this world, perhaps as much as 80% of it, is caused by people using their freedom to act against others. The horrors of war, terrorism, people trafficking, economic exploitation or third world poverty and famine can be seen to be caused by evil men.

But there are natural disasters such as tsunamis; cyclones; earthquakes, volcanic eruptions which decimate countries and neighbourhoods. Even if you allow that some of the suffering related to natural disasters is indirectly man-made – living in an earthquake zone because of poverty - we are left with the problem of why God allows these major events disasters to take place.

And anyway, why does God allow tyrants, terrorists and war-mongers to flourish? Back to the beginning: bad things happen, apparently randomly, to good people and we don't understand.

God is Love: Jesus Shows It

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The Bible doesn’t duck these issues: read the book of Job, read Ecclesiastes. The Bible teaches that Adam and Eve fell and that this fall has led to our suffering, the entry of sin and death into the world. But God set out a plan of salvation for the redemption of the world. God has sent his son Jesus to be with us in our suffering. Jesus demonstrates that God is love, that God is good. Jesus came down into our world to identify with our suffering, to suffer on the Cross to save us from our sin and to lead us from this fallen world. This world which was made through Him (see John 1), will be remade through Him. Jesus’ return at the end of time will usher in a new heaven and a new earth.

Can we explain the suffering and evil in the world? Can we understand and interpret everything that is happening? No. But we know God loves us that Jesus cares for us in our pain, because he too has suffered on this earth, and that He is with us in all the difficulties of life until we go to be with Him in glory.