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Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph

If there is one big life question that has been asked for generations, it will be this question: “Can God and suffering co-exist?” Of course, it might not be ordinarily phrased that way. It has, rather, been asked in various other ways:

  • How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in this world?
  • If there is a good God, why do we see so much suffering in this world?
  • If God is good and powerful, why does He allow evil to happen?

The picture above was famously taken by Kevin Carter, and it has appeared in so many blogs and webpages whenever one talks about evil, suffering, and the existence of God. How can God allow a little innocent child to die such a tragic death?

If you are a Christian, chances are you have been asked the same question; and if you are like regular Christians, chances are you are not sure where to begin. We must be humble enough to say that there is no complete answer. It will be arrogant to claim that we have the perfect answer. However, it does not mean we cannot talk about this, and it does not mean we cannot offer any answer to help people understand more about this problem. As Christians, we have God’s revelation about His nature and His characters, and we can offer this knowledge to those who are asking. In fact, this is a good opportunity to help people understand who our God is as revealed in His Word.

In order to begin answering this question, we must understand why the person is asking the question. Generally speaking, people may be asking this question from two positions:

  1. They are observers. They are questioning this after observing what’s happening in this world, and they find it illogical to assert that (a good) God exists.
  2. They are victims. They are asking this question in the midst of suffering or grief. They or their loved ones are in a painfully tough time. Regardless whether or not they believe in the existence of God, they find it difficult to accept that this God is good and/or loving.

It is important to know from which standpoint one is asking the question. In the first case, the question is more philosophical than it is personal, while in the second, the question is very much personal and very little philosophical. Giving a philosophical answer and logical explanation to those who are suffering might do them very little good, and vice versa. Of course, they overlap to some extent, and therefore when we answer the question, we must offer the combination of both. However, it is still important to know where one is coming from in order to serve him or her better in one’s search for an answer. Having said the above, this post is a humble attempt to the first case. I would perhaps attempt the second – “Where is God when it really hurts?” – at a later post.

Philosophically, this question usually follows the following logical statements:

  • If God is all-powerful (omnipotent), He can do anything He wants.
  • If God is all-knowing (omniscient), He knows everything that happens on this earth.
  • If God is all-loving (omnibenevolent), He cares for His creation, especially human beings.
  • But the reality is that evil exists. Therefore, God cannot be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving at the same time.

If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, He cannot be all-loving. OR
If God is all-powerful and all-loving, He cannot be all-knowing. OR
If God is all-loving and all-knowing, He cannot be all-powerful.
And if God is not all three at the same time, then He ceases to be God.
Therefore, God and Suffering cannot coexist. OR can they?

Chris Mulherin, in his recent RoundTable discussion offered five things that we need to know when we talk about this problem of evil.

Firstly, God did not create evil.
In creating human beings, God gave us free will. We have the choice to obey God or to disobey God. Evil happens when human beings exercise their free will in disobedience toward God. So, although God is not responsible for the creation of evil, He allows it to happen.

Of course, we can then question why God created the possibility of evil at all. However, if God did not allow for the possibility of human disobedience, then it ceases to be free will. We will simply be good-deed-robots that cannot do anything except obeying God. If that’s the case, then God is not good. God is good exactly because God has allowed for sin. God allowed evil and sin to happen exactly because He is all-powerful.

God allowed evil and sin to happen exactly because He is all-powerful.

Secondly, God cannot do everything.
God’s omnipotence does not mean that He can do absolutely everything.
For once, He cannot do something that is logically impossible, e.g., He cannot make a round square. In addition, He will never do something that will defeat His purpose. Can a builder build a one-metre ceiling heights home? Certainly. But will he? Certainly not. Why? Because it will defeat the purpose of a home. Similarly, although God can do everything that is logically possible, He will not do those that are not according to His purpose. Following from the previous point, although God can eradicate all sufferings (it is logically possible), for His grand purpose, He has chosen not to. At least, not yet.

Thirdly, we don’t know everything.
We must be humble enough to acknowledge that we are not God, and therefore at the very least, we are not all-knowing. The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Just because what we see does not fit our category of things, it does not mean that it is incoherent or not there. If we try to put God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence within our category, then He ceases to be the real God. Rather, he becomes an object of our imagination. As a result, we create a god in our image, not the other way around.

Fourthly, history is not over yet.
We are also confident that God will sort things out in the end. God has revealed that He will not leave the guilty unpunished, sin and evil will be fully eradicated, sickness and death will be no more, and He has promised that in the end, everything will be alright for those who put their faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The end is already happening. Jesus has come and has sealed His victory over evil, sin, and death. We are now living in between His first and second coming. Although sin and death are still prevalent, we know for sure that they will be fully destroyed with Jesus being the risen proof of this. As a child who trusts his or her parents, so we trust God.

Fifthly, God knows all about evil.
From the history of His dealing with humanity, there has not been any slight evidence that God does not know the evil that’s happening on earth. God is patient and He desires people to repent and to turn to Him. At the same time, He uses the evil and sufferings to discipline and to build characters.

In His sovereign plan, He allows sin, evil, and sufferings to exist in order to bring about His glorious purpose in bringing His Son Jesus Christ to earth to redeem humanity through His life, crucifixion, and resurrection, in sanctifying His people through pains and sufferings inflicted by others, and in upholding His justice and mercy at the same time in punishing unrepentant sinners and saving repentant ones.

Only an all-knowing, an all-powerful, and all-loving God can orchestrate and execute such a grand drama that involves humans free will, satan’s evil intentions, and decaying world, while at the same time achieves His infinitely good purpose perfectly.

Ultimately, there is no simple answer to this big question. We must continue to have honest and loving conversations in order to help each other. However, these five ideas provide a way for us to talk about this as Christians.

It is also worth mentioning that those who don’t believe in God also have the problem of evil. Atheists like to challenge Christians about this problem demanding Christians to defend the existence of God. However, Christians must also lovingly challenge their atheist friends to provide their own explanations. The question “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in this world?” is a difficult question. However, the question “What hope would we have if God did not exist when there is so much suffering in this world?” is an even more difficult one.

If an atheist is consistent with his worldview, then he would not even ask the question. Asking such question would necessitate that they believe evil is wrong (or at least evil is not natural). However, believing such thing would necessitate that they believe in some sort of standard of good and bad, or right and wrong. Atheism does not have any basis for that. The fact that they are asking such question is telling that their heart yearns for God who is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Our loving duty is then to show them this God as revealed in His Words.

Ultimately, in the midst of this groaning world, all the more we need a good God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. He is the only hope we have, really.