How can we believe in a God who allows evil and suffering?

It was embarrassing. The two humanists on the panel were having a collective nightmare. As we discoursed on the nature of evidence, creation and the Bible, they were struggling more and more to make a coherent case for their atheism. Until at last one cracked. Red faced and angry he just blurted out: "How can you believe in a God who allows suffering?" It wasn't the subject of the evening, but this was his last desperate attempt to justify not believing in the God of the Bible.

For some it is the first and greatest hurdle. The problem of evil, or in its more refined form, the problem of suffering, is probably the number one defeater belief.

The Problem defined

God is all-powerful so could destroy evil and prevent suffering

God is good so would want to destroy evil and suffering

Evil and suffering exist so the good and all-powerful God does not exist.

It is apparently such an overwhelming logical case that anyone who does not accept it is in denial, stupid or themselves evil. Any attempt to answer the problem is considered heartless as well as impossible – but here goes.

The Problem for the Atheist

Let us imagine that God does not exist. Would that mean that evil and suffering do not exist? Would the problem of evil go away because there would be no evil? Let's ask Richard Dawkins, who is always helpful in explaining these things.


"In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going toget hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or 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" (River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). That is the atheist view in a nutshell. There is no evil. No good. Nothing but pitiless indifference.

And the problem gets worse. For the evolutionary naturalist (the person who believes that there is only 'stuff') there is no creation, no life after death, no ultimate foundation for morality, no ultimate meaning in life and no human free will. It's all chemistry, biology, physics and genetics.

The German atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche wrote a brilliant work called Beyond Good and Evil in which he stated: "We believe that severity, violence, slavery, danger in the street and in the heart, secrecy, stoicism, the tempter's art and devilry of every kind – that everything wicked, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and serpentine in man, serves as well for the elevation of the human species as its opposite." In other words suffering is good because it weeds out the weak. In fact, according to atheistic evolution, anything that furthers the human species should be deemed as 'good'.

The problem of evil for the atheist is so overwhelming that they either deny its existence (evil is just a social construct), or if they wish to remain logically consistent they are compelled to become theists. CS Lewis made the journey that many have made from atheism to theism, partly because he realised that evil was a far greater problem for the atheist.

CS Lewis was an atheist before he became a Christian.

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust...? Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple" (Mere Christianity).

But the atheist is not quite finished yet. Even allowing for the non-existence of evil they then turn it to the question of suffering and ask the simple question, why would an all-powerful, good God allow suffering?

This for me is always a pertinent question. This week alone I think of a friend who committed suicide, another one who has been taken into hospital suffering from a terrible illness, never mind the ongoing suffering that I see every day in the world.

Of course once you start to think about it you realise that some suffering is necessary. When I go to the dentist the needle in my mouth is suffering, but it is for a clear and better purpose. So the atheist immediately asks, but what about pointless suffering? Tim Keller, whose book on this subject Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is this week's recommended book, points out the problem with this. "Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless... This reasoning is, of course, fallacious. Just because you can't see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn't mean there can't be one."

So the problem of evil and suffering for the atheist is devastating and the solution, just suck it up and see, is inadequate for anyone.

Let's return to the Christian view and see what our perspective is. For me evil and suffering are reasons to believe the Good News, not to reject it. Because it's the only explanation and even more importantly, the only solution I know.

The Problem of Evil for the Christian

Here is a suggested biblical solution.

1. God did not create evil because it is not created

Did God create a perfect world and then get it wrong? Or did God create a perfect world that he allowed to go wrong? I love Augustine's answer to this question.

a. God created all things.

b. Evil is not a created thing – it is the absence of good.

c. God did not create evil, but permits it for the good.

2. God permitted evil but brings even greater good out of that evil

"And, in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if he were not so omnipotent and good that he can bring good even out of evil" (Augustine's Enchiridion, ch. 11).

"For he judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist" (Enchiridion, ch. 27).

I sometimes ask people whether, if I could create them in a world in which they experienced no pain, no suffering, no existential angst, no broken relationships, no cancer, no tears, they would want that. "Oh yes." "In that case I will create you as a chair." "Oh no, I want to be human."

And there is the rub. Maybe in order to be human there needs to be an element of free will, moral choice and love that is not just chemically pre-destined. Maybe for that to happen God created this world to be a 'vale for soul making', a physical and moral environment which allows us to live as free moral agents and to learn what we need to learn.

So God did not create evil, but permitted it. Why? For a greater purpose than if had not permitted it. The next step...

3. God alone knows the end from the beginning and how to bring good out of evil.

Sometimes we set ourselves up as though we were the judge and God had to answer to us – a complete reversal of the real situation. Consider how God answered a man who suffered more than most of us: Job.

"Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell Me, if you know all this. Do you know it, because you were born then, or because the number of your days is great? Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it. Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified? (Job 38:2-4,18,21; 40:2,8).

The infinite, eternal, omniscient Creator is far more likely to know about good and evil, and its consequences than his finite, limited, ignorant creatures.

But this is not enough. We do not want to be Job's comforters or to be comforted by Job's friends. We need to know not just the how and why of evil, but do we have a better solution than 'suck it up and see'?

God's answer to evil and suffering – The great writers, poets and thinkers have always wrestled with this subject. Dostoevsky, for example, wrote: "Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth" (Crime and Punishment).

I was in the National Portrait Gallery in London and came across this extraordinary poem by Ben Okri –

Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn,
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little my canvas of time
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.

That is God's answer. He himself is the cure. Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, the Resurrection, the Healer, the Good Shepherd. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." The atheist is compelled to say it's just luck and there is no answer. The Christian says, "I fear no evil." There is the fundamental difference between the two worldviews.

The atheist says good and evil are an illusion. The Christian faces up to reality and says there is real evil, real darkness, real despair, but there is a real Saviour, who came to free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death. The practical consequences of these beliefs are phenomenal. The atheist puts a band-aid on the problem, the Christian gets to the heart of the matter.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam asks Gandalf if everything sad is going to come untrue. God's solution to the problem of evil is to work it all out through the life, death and resurrection of Christ and to present the untangled beautiful tapestry on the Day of Judgement. This is the whole story and the whole message of the Bible. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Next week we see just how Christ is the answer. Meanwhile I leave you with one example of how this works.

I think of a woman I met who lived in very poor circumstances. Her partner had died from a brain tumour. She had three teenage daughters. She too had a brain tumour but did not want to go into hospital. I was deeply moved by her suffering and the pain in her eyes. I said to her "Life is ugly. "Yes," she acknowledged with tears. "What would you say if I told you that even out of the greatest ugliness there can come great beauty?"

I was not offering physical healing, riches or resurrection from the dead – at least just then. She started crying. "I can't believe that it could be so". Beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the spirit of praise for the garment of heaviness. That is how we fight the ugliness of evil and the pain of suffering....we bring the beauty of Christ.

David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.