How Could a Loving God Allow So Much Suffering?
If, as Jesus claims, the goal of our existence is relationship with him, finding him in our suffering is the point.
Rebecca McLaughlin, who was featured at our 2019 conference and who has guest hosted a couple of our podcast episodes, released a book, Confronting Christianity (Crossway, 2019). She tackles a dozen of the hardest objections to the faith, including the claims that Christianity is anti-science, misogynistic, and homophobic. The excerpt below comes from Chapter 11: “How could a loving God allow so much suffering?”
Just as the presence of so much suffering in the world can be a stumbling block to people considering the Gospel, suffering and death are also a reason why many Christians struggle to accept an old earth and evolution. They wonder how God’s creation could be called good (as it repeatedly is in Genesis 1) if death has always been a part of life on this planet and occurred long before humans were around to sin. Yet the Bible shows us a God who works powerfully in and through suffering to draw us to himself. That seems to be true both in the natural world and in our individual and corporate lives. We pick up Rebecca’s chapter near the end of her commentary on the story of Mary, Martha, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11).
“Lazarus, Come Out!”
When Jesus comes to Lazarus’s tomb, he is deeply moved again, and he commands that the stone be taken away. Martha cautions him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39). But Jesus insists. He prays. Then he shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” And the man who has died comes out (John 11:43–44).
I often tell my daughters this story. Unlike most children in most of human history, they have had little experience with death so far. But I want them to know that one day, when their bodies have rotted and their lives have been forgotten, Jesus will call them out of their graves—not to float as disembodied souls in the sky, but to walk in resurrected bodies on the earth. The one who called stars into being will also call them from death to life.
Jesus’s power over death is absolute. I believe it is the only hope we have in the face of our inevitable end. But what fascinates me about this story is how little focus there is on Lazarus himself. Rather, the narrative draws our gaze to profound questions: Why, if Jesus planned to heal Lazarus, did he not just do so in the first place? Why did he let Lazarus die, and leave Mary and Martha mourning for days? Why not tell Martha what he was planning to do right away? In this strange stretching of the story, we get a glimpse of the whole biblical framework for suffering. The space between Lazarus’s death and Jesus’s calling of him out of the tomb is the space in which Martha sees Jesus for who he really is: her very life.
This story illuminates both suffering and prayer. We often see prayer as a means to an end: God is a cosmic vending machine; insert prayer and expect results to drop into your hand—or kick the machine in anger when they don’t. But the story of Lazarus upends this idea. Jesus is not a means to an end, a mechanism through which Martha can change her circumstances. He is the end. Her circumstances drive her to him. It’s not that her suffering or our suffering doesn’t matter: it matters enough to bring tears to the eyes of the Son of God! But it matters like a first meeting matters to marriage, or like birth matters to motherhood. It is an entry point to relationship, a relationship formed through suffering as much as through joy. If, as Jesus claims, the goal of our existence is relationship with him, finding him in our suffering is the point.
Suffering and Sin
Recognizing the role of suffering in our relationship with Christ helps us see through a common misconception about suffering from a Christian perspective. We are tempted to believe that suffering is a punishment for sin. But the Bible is clear that—while sin and suffering are clearly connected in a universal sense, and living in rebellion against God can cause us heartache now—the amount of suffering a person endures is not proportional to his or her sin. The Old Testament book of Job dramatizes this point. Jesus reinforces it. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man who was blind from birth, and his disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus replies, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Then Jesus heals the man.
This teaching sets Christianity apart from the versions of Buddhism that teach karma and reincarnation. Within that logic, our present circumstances are the result of past actions: sins in a past life can determine suffering here and now. Not so in Christianity. Indeed, if anything, Christianity reverses that paradigm: those who live in privilege now are warned of an afterlife of suffering if they do not take the radical medicine of Christ. Those who suffer now are closest to God’s heart. This dynamic is explored in one of Jesus’s most uncomfortable parables—a story guaranteed to send chills down the spine of every person reading this book—the parable of the rich man and another Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). While we can absolutely look for meaning in our suffering, we should not use it as a measuring stick for guilt, or think that if we only prayed harder or had more faith or did better, our lives would be suffering-free.
Suffering and Love
From a biblical perspective, we must also reject the idea that if God loves us, he cannot intend for us to suffer. This premise crumbles on every scriptural page. Time and again, we see those who are chosen and beloved by God suffering. When Jesus comes, we see that script played out on a cosmic stage: God’s beloved Son, the One in whom the Father is well pleased, comes expressly to suffer and to die out of love for his people. Indeed, our beliefs about God and suffering expose the fault lines between our natural assumptions and the biblical narrative.
The loving, omnipotent God of our imagination would move swiftly from creation to new creation, from the garden of Eden of Genesis to the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation. But the God of the Bible charts a different course. He spreads his story out over thousands, even millions, of years and weaves in all the mess of human history—sin and sex and death and historical accident. And at the center of history, he stakes the cross of his beloved Son. Jesus’s death is no accident. It is not even Plan B. It is the lynchpin around which all human history revolves, the central peg of reality itself. This brutal death of an innocent man—bearing a world’s weight of sin and guilt and suffering—is the focal point of the story. Indeed, it is the lens through which we visualize the narrative itself. But it is not the last word.
Suffering and Story
The Lord of the Rings kindled my imagination as a child. My father read it to me. Now I’m reading it to my eight-year-old—much to our mutual delight. At a low point in the narrative, two central characters, Frodo and Sam, discuss where they are in the story. Sam recalls how he used to think that people in tales went looking for adventure because their lives were dull. But, he reflects, “that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.” Frodo enjoys the story Sam starts to tell about their own adventure. But then he stops his friend: “We’re going on a bit too fast. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’”
The hobbits do not know how their story will end. If it ended in this moment, it would be bleak and hopeless. But the story goes on. Tolkien takes them through darkness and suffering and loss to a painful victory, as Gollum bites the ring off Frodo’s hand. The story leaves Frodo scarred in body and mind. But it is a victory nonetheless, and one of which he and Sam hear songs sung and stories told. Finally, changed and matured, Frodo goes with the elves to their land across the sea. Tolkien’s work was sculpted by his Christian faith, and that was a faith not just in Jesus’s death but also in his resurrected life. The journey of all the central characters is through darkness—even death—to new life. But tap them on the shoulder at the darkest moment, and none would know where they are in the story.
If you are in the midst of suffering now, hope of a happy ending may feel crass. A friend who lost his first child to miscarriage shared with me that for a long time, he and his wife could only pray Psalm 88, which ends with darkness. The panacea platitude “Everything happens for a reason” is often cold comfort to an anguished heart. But another friend, whose teenage son was brain damaged in a sport accident, shared his perspective on suffering like this: “People often think that the reality of suffering is an embarrassment to the Christian faith. But I think suffering is the greatest apologetic for Christianity there is.”
From an atheist perspective, not only is there no hope of a better end to the story; there is no ultimate story. There is nothing but blind, pitiless indifference [quoting from Richard Dawkins earlier in the chapter]. From a Christian perspective, there is not only hope for a better end; there is intimacy now with the One whose resurrected hands still bear the scars of the nails that pinned him to his cross. Suffering is not an embarrassment to the Christian faith. It is the thread with which Christ’s name is stitched into our lives.
Genesis to Revelation
This perspective on suffering helps us understand the grand sweep of the biblical narrative. The beginning of the Bible paints a picture of Paradise: human beings in relationship with God and with each other, unstained by sin or suffering or death. Many people conclude from this that the end point of Christianity is a return to Eden. But when we examine this idea, we realize that it renders the whole of human history a cosmic waste of time. God could just have stopped Adam and Eve from sinning in the first place. And even if there were reasons to allow sin—granting human free will, perhaps—one can imagine a much shorter, straighter line to draw between the beginning and the end than the Scriptures describe. But the Bible’s “new creation” is not just a return to the idyllic old. It is far better.
In the early Genesis narrative, Adam and Eve knew God as Creator and Lord—perhaps, even, as friend. But Christians know Jesus far more intimately: as Savior, Lover, Husband, Head, Brother, Fellow Sufferer, and their Resurrection and their Life. The first humans could not have dreamed of this earth-shattering intimacy with God. It was an intimacy best glimpsed in their experience of each other before they turned from their Maker. But the lack of that intimacy with God himself explains the strange declaration that it was “not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The original vision of humanity was very good. But it was not the best. The best, from a biblical perspective, was yet to come. And the way to get there would be through suffering.
My eight-year-old is an avid reader and an aspiring writer. Her vocabulary is broad, her imagination is wild, but her stories are dull. Why? Because she strives for happiness throughout. Without suffering, her characters cannot develop. Without fellowship in suffering, they cannot truly bond. The Bible begins and ends with happiness, but the meat of the story is raw. Christians are promised that one day, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4). But we are not promised that God will not allow us to cry in the first place. What end could possibly be worth all this pain? Jesus says he is.
Suffering and Christian Ethics
In Jesus, Christians have the promise of a lover who will never leave them or forsake them, who sits with them in suffering to the bitter end—and beyond. As Jesus’s “body” on earth, therefore, Christians must throw themselves into fellowship with sufferers. This is not a fellowship devoid of practical help. Christians were the first to found hospitals and—for all their moral failure—have done more in global terms to alleviate suffering than any other movement. We see this historically and we see it today.
In 2018, ISIS victim and humanitarian Nadia Murad shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Congolese physician Denis Mukwege. Dr. Mukwege, nicknamed “Doctor Miracle,” is a pioneering surgeon who has treated thousands of victims of sexual violence for the medical aftereffects of gang rape and brutality. Recognizing Jesus’s relentless call on Christians to serve the suffering, Mukwege urges fellow believers, “As long as our faith is defined by theory and not connected with practical realities, we shall not be able to fulfil the mission entrusted to us by Christ.” “If we are Christ’s,” Mukwege continues, “we have no choice but to be alongside the weak, the wounded, the refugees and women suffering discrimination.”
Those living in the slums of Calcutta know this from Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa’s goal was profoundly theological—“seeing and adoring Jesus . . . in the distressing disguise of the poor”—but not at all theoretical. It meant caring for people no one else cared for, touching people no one else would touch. Christians are not called to compassionate detachment. Christians truly following Jesus are deeply attached, and covered in tears—their own, and those of others—just like their Lord.
“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”
Believing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life is not a one-time posture of the mind. Rather, it is a daily battle of the heart. As with a kid riding a rollercoaster, all our senses scream otherwise. I’m routinely tempted to believe that something or someone else is in fact my life. I look to the things I desire to fill me up. And those things, those people, can feel so real compared with this impossible God who calls me to crucify my desires and throw myself into his arms.
In those moments, when I don’t believe, I recall Martha’s story. Her heart yearned for her brother. His restoration felt like life to her. But Jesus stood before her, looked into her eyes, and said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Sometimes I win the battle. Sometimes I lose. At times I feel Christ’s presence flooding my meager heart. At other times I cling on for dear life, not knowing the end of the story. But I must stake my life on this claim: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Content taken from Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
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