Long before people in the twenty-first century asked questions about God and suffering, faithful men and women in the Bible had been wrestling with them. For example, David wrote, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:3). The question of why God allows people to suffer often arises when a person, or a loved one, is experiencing significant hardship. Thankfully, many find hope in Jesus Christ.
Christianity commonly responds to the question of why God allows suffering in three ways. First, it cites that God created people with free will. Second, it offers the Great-Good defense. Third, it proclaims that God hasn’t allowed suffering without also providing a way for people to overcome it through Jesus Christ.
How does free will explain why God allows suffering? Do all Christians agree about every aspect of the free-will argument? What verses does the greater-good argument cite to support their view? How does Jesus’ death on the cross overcome suffering? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
God allows suffering because he created people with free will
One of the responses that Christian theology offers to David (quoted above) and others who have wrestled with the reality of God allowing suffering is to say that the root cause isn’t in God but in people and their choices.
How does free will explain why God allows suffering? If people are really free, so this argument goes, then they can make choices that result in suffering for themselves or others. Many who make this argument believe that it was better for God to give people free will, even if that enabled them to err in their decisions than to create people to be robots whose every choice, thought, and feeling is automatic, preprogrammed, and forced.
Are people who suffer always experiencing the consequences of their own free will? No. In David’s life, sometimes the suffering he experienced was the result of his own shortcomings. Other times, his suffering was the result of other people using their free will to make evil decisions that hurt him. Similarly, the hardship many people experience today is sometimes a consequence of their own choices and other times the result of other people’s decisions.
Why doesn’t God stop people from making choices that result in suffering? While God has provided ways to enable people to make good decisions in their lives, the free-will argument states that his intervention would render people robotic and take away their freedom.
How can people make the right choices? Prayer, Bible reading, and regular church attendance are examples of ways that God helps steer people in the right direction. The Holy Spirit, which indwells believers, also empowers them to make righteous choices. Yet God doesn’t override their free will, according to this argument.
Is it inconsistent for people to complain about the existence of suffering but want to maintain their individual freedom? While people should prioritize extending comfort and compassion to those who are suffering, according to the free-will argument, their protests against God allowing suffering, along with their desire to remain free to make their own choices, may be irreconcilable.
Do all Christians agree about every aspect of the free-will argument? No. Two positions within the free-will argument are called compatibilism and incompatibilism. Reformed or Calvinist theologians argue for compatibilism and Arminian theologians argue for incompatibilism. Both positions affirm a degree of individual freedom but disagree on how a person’s will operates in conjunction with God’s sovereignty.
|Is God sovereign?||yes||yes|
|Are humans morally responsible?||yes||yes|
|Is God dependent on human decisions?||no, or else God wouldn’t truly be sovereign||sometimes, or else people wouldn’t truly have free will|
God allows suffering for the greater good
Another common response to the question of why God allows suffering is often called the “greater good” argument. The name refers to the belief that God allows suffering because a net gain of good results from it as a result of his providence over all things.
What is the greater good argument? This viewpoint suggests that God allows suffering because, through his power, love, and wisdom, he is able to bring about good outcomes from hardship. The evil that produced the suffering isn’t inherently good, but God through his purposeful sovereignty, intervenes to bring about good outcomes from the wickedness. Good, that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred, results from the suffering.
What is an example of the greater-good argument? Joseph’s story in Genesis is an example of this. Joseph’s brothers intended to do him harm, but God’s purposeful sovereignty created a different outcome.
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20, ESV)
Does this view make evil necessary? Some who hold this view conclude that it makes evil necessary. For example, they argue that people can only know and experience God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness if they sin. They don’t believe that God is directly responsible for sin, but that he allows it for greater purposes.
Is the good that God extracts greater than the evil he allows? Some make this argument. For example, Joseph was wrongly imprisoned for two years, yet because he was, his family as well as many other people didn’t starve to death when a famine occurred. Others believe there is a moral problem with suggesting that God allows suffering like slavery, genocide, rape, and murder because some future good will result.
What Bible verses does the greater-good argument cite to support their view? In addition to Genesis 50:20, the argument utilizes many stories and teachings from the Old and New Testaments. Three foundational verses of the argument are:
- “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
- “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7)
- “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lam. 3:38)
God doesn’t allow evil without having a plan to overcome it
This argument develops the greater-good perspective, highlighting that God allowed suffering and death in the life of his innocent son, born into the world as Jesus of Nazareth, yet overcame it through resurrecting him from the dead.
Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t the Father’s response to a surprising turn of events (his death). The cross didn’t catch the Father or the son off guard. Instead, the plan was for Jesus to die, defeat sin once and for all, and then rise to new life. In summary, God allowed Jesus to suffer, yet ordained his resurrection from the dead.
How does Jesus’ death overcome suffering? Because Jesus never sinned, he was a perfect sacrifice for those who did. Love for people drove Jesus to die on the cross (John 3:16), which enables all sinners to be reconciled to God through repentance and faith. The cross of Christ redeems sinners and gives them victory over suffering.
When was Jesus’ death for sin planned? Revelation 13:8 teaches that the death of Jesus, who is referred to as the Lamb, was planned before the world was made: “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” God sent Jesus into the world to die for sinners, and his subsequent resurrection from the dead was not an afterthought.
“The real sting of suffering is not misfortune itself, nor even the pain of it or the injustice of it, but the apparent God-forsakenness of it. Pain is endurable, but the seeming indifference of God is not… We think of Him as an armchair spectator, almost gloating over the world’s suffering, and enjoying His own insulation from it. It is this terrible caricature of God that the cross smashes to smithereens.” John Stott, English theologian, emphasis added
Did the authors of the Bible change their theology after their leader died? After seeing Jesus die, did the disciples re-write the narrative to say that God would defeat sin through losing, rather than defeat sin by winning? What argues against this idea is the fact that the Old Testament contains many hints, allusions, and foreshadows of a God-ordained atonement for sin that provides victory for sinners.
What is an example of an Old Testament verse that refers to the cross of Christ? Some believe that Genesis 3:15 records the first reference to Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan by means of the cross, though crucifixion isn’t explicitly mentioned. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV, emphasis added).
Isaiah 53:5-6 is a more detailed prophecy of Christ’s atonement. The passage is traditionally called “The Suffering Servant.” The beginning of verse five states that the servant will be pierced and crushed for people’s transgressions and inequities. Furthermore, his chastisement results in peace for people who are healed through his wounds.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”
The existence of God and the reality of suffering
Why God allows suffering is an ongoing discussion in Christian theology. Some believers are more sure of their answers to the question than others, but all Christians can trust God just the same.
Some atheists cite a lack of acceptable answers to questions like why God allows suffering as a primary reason for their disbelief. What some fail to realize is that believers, including many in the Bible, asked similar questions, wrestled with the answers (or lack thereof), yet believed anyway.
Wrestling with hard questions doesn’t automatically make a person an unbeliever or non-Christian. Asking questions borne of sadness, despair, and depression isn’t unbiblical but follows in the footsteps of faithful followers of God like David who prayed with great authenticity and sincerity — and faith.
And many Christians, as seen in the reflection below, grow in faith, trust, and love for God, even when not all their questions are answered how they want them to be.
“He has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer His embrace. The greatest good suffering can do for me is to increase my capacity for God. Real satisfaction comes not in understanding God’s motives, but in understanding His character, in trusting in His promises, and in leaning on Him and resting in Him as the Sovereign who knows what He is doing and does all things well.” (Joni Eareckson Tada)
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