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Perspectives on the Problem of Pain

Perspectives on the Problem of Pain
By Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Ask ten non-Christians to name their most important objection to the truth-claims of Christianity, and nine may very well mention some version of the same objection: if God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow pain and suffering? This is one way of stating what is traditionally known as “the problem of evil.” What most people do not appreciate is that there are actually several problems associated with evil and pain. Understanding these different problems, or difficult questions, will help us greatly in responding to objections to the Christian faith.

Discussions of the problem of pain often proceed as if the reality of evil and suffering is a problem only for the Christian worldview. This false assumption needs to be challenged. Every worldview needs to come to terms with the fact of evil. Surprisingly, most non-Christian worldviews can’t.
The atheist problem of pain. Atheists lead the way in citing the problem of pain as an objection to Christianity. Yet they have a different sort of problem: the problem of explaining why any pain should be viewed as evil. According to atheism, there is no spiritual or moral power that governs the world. The logical consequence of this worldview is that evil is not an objective reality but a perception that people impose on things that happen. They take as literal truth the sentiment expressed in Hamlet (2.2), “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” To be consistent, anyone who takes this view should not regard the inflicting of pain as good or evil. After all, in a materialist worldview, pain is merely a natural biological phenomenon, nothing more. For example, if atheism is true, to say “the Holocaust was evil” is merely another way of saying something like “Most people now disapprove of the Holocaust” or “I wish the Holocaust hadn’t happened.” An atheist can say, “The Nazis were wrong to cause all that pain and death,” but the atheist has no rational explanation for why those actions were wrong. Atheists, then, have a “problem of pain”: their worldview requires them to deny their moral knowledge that some things are just plain evil.

The pantheist problem of pain. Pantheism is the belief that in some sense God is all. In pantheism nothing exists that does not participate in, manifest, or reflect the divine All. This worldview also has a problem explaining why pain is ever a bad thing. If everything is God or an expression of God, nothing can be distinguished from God; but then pain is just as good as pleasure, death is just as good as life, and acts of brutality are just as divine as acts of charity. In fact, if all is God, then either God is evil (as well as good) or evil does not exist. Historically, most pantheists have opted for the conclusion that evil does not exist; it is an illusion, an expression of ignorance. And how can there be ignorance or illusion in God? Ultimately, pantheism has no answer.

When non-Christians refer to pain and suffering, or more broadly evil, as the basis of an objection to the Christian view of God, they may actually have one of several problems in mind.
The logical problem of pain. The most familiar version of the problem of pain is a logical conundrum: How can God be all-powerful (and thus be able to eliminate pain) and all-good (and therefore presumably want to eliminate all pain), and yet pain be a reality? The problem of relating these three propositions (God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and pain, suffering, and evil exist) is known in philosophy by the question-begging designation “the inconsistent triad.” Actually, though, this is in a sense the easiest version of the problem to resolve. The argument assumes that an all-good God would want to eliminate pain and other forms of evil immediately—indeed, it assumes that he would want to stop it before it happened. But this assumption is not logically required to retain the belief that God is all-good. God’s perfect goodness is logically compatible with the reality of evil, including pain and suffering, as long as his allowing it results in the end in a greater good.

The evidential problem of pain. Most non-Christian philosophers have abandoned the logical problem of evil as a serious objection to belief in God. Instead, they ask if it is reasonable to believe that God exists and has a greater good to accomplish from the abundance and horrific kinds of evil that actually happen in our world. Couldn’t God have accomplished his purposes with less pain and suffering for his creatures? And isn’t it difficult to maintain that every instance of suffering—say, the painful death of an innocent child—has a greater purpose that justified it?

In response to this more challenging form of the objection, Christians can make at least three simple points.

First, it is hard to know in what way we could determine how much evil would not be too much. From our limited vantage point of the thousands of years of human history, of course, there has been an awful lot of suffering. But what if it is true that human beings have the potential to live forever? Might it not be that the extreme pain and suffering that we experience in this age eventually seem to pale by comparison to all of the good?

Second, since we’re not God, we aren’t aware of all the good things that have happened or will happen as a result of his allowing evil. The moral outrage of one person at the senseless suffering and death of an innocent child might be enough to bring about changes that save thousands of other children.

Third, there is independent evidence to show that God does exist (from nature, conscience, and revelation). The reasonable position is to accept the existence of God and the reality of pain and other forms of evil, even if we have to admit that we don’t fully understand how these two truths are correlated.

The personal problem of evil. For many people, the problem of evil is not a philosophical issue but a highly personal, emotional and spiritual problem. They have lost loved ones, or suffered great pain, or been traumatized in some way, and they wonder how they can believe that God is good and that he loves them. Of all the religions of the world, only Christianity has a satisfying answer to this question: God has shown us that he cares by coming into this world and experiencing personal rejection, trauma, and great suffering. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He knows what we’re going through, and he does care. We can effectively communicate this great news to those who are suffering, though, only if we show that we also love those who are suffering. Just as God was not content to proclaim his love for us but acted to demonstrate it, so we need to demonstrate God’s love for others by acting toward them in love.
When a non-Christian brings up pain and suffering as an objection to the Christian faith, find out which of these problems they find troubling, and deal with that one. Then, if they fall back on a non-Christian way of looking at the world, help them to see that the reality of evil is an intractable problem for their own worldview.

The Bible provides a wealth of perspectives on the problems of undeserved pain and suffering as well as the broader problem of evil. Although most of the books of the Bible contribute to our understanding of this subject, I will highlight the teachings of three books—two from the Old Testament and one from the New—that are especially rich in this area.

Genesis and the origin of pain. The Book of Genesis is truly the book of beginnings, and addresses the origin of evil and suffering. It tells us, first of all, that God created everything good. The first chapter of Genesis repeatedly affirms that what God made was good, and at the end climaxes with the statement that it was all “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This is really good news, because it means that evil is not an incorrigible, original or eternal aspect of reality—and if it hasn’t always been here, it can be eliminated. Genesis also teaches that human evil began with the choice of the first human beings to disobey God (Gen. 3). Human evil is not a by-product of a naturalistic evolutionary process; it is, rather, a degradation of an originally pristine human condition, a “fall,” as Christian theology has historically called it, into spiritual and moral corruption. Suffering and death befall all human beings because of this original sin (Gen. 3:16-19). God did not cause the first humans to sin, nor does he cause people to do evil things today. However, somehow God mysteriously superintends everything that happens in such a way that he is able to use the evil actions of creatures to bring about a greater good. This is stated explicitly by Joseph at the climax of the book, when he tells his brothers (who had sold him into slavery), “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20 NASB). Here we see that a “greater-good” approach to the problem of evil has direct support from Scripture.

Job and the problem of unjust suffering. The entire Book of Job is devoted to the theme of the problem of pain and suffering, particularly when people appear to suffer undeservedly. The book addresses these issues through the vehicle of the story of Job, a righteous man who suffers greatly. From the prologue (chapters 1-2) we learn that behind human suffering is an unseen spiritual drama of conflict between God and “the Adversary,” or Satan. According to this prologue, Satan is in some way responsible for some, and perhaps much, of human suffering (Job 2:7). However, Satan is not an evil God equal to or independent of the good God who created the world. Rather, Satan is a mere creature who remains under God’s control—on a short leash, if you will. Likewise, God rules over the physical world and nothing in it happens without his permission (Job 1:12; 2:6; 42:2). The Book of Job—and Job himself—therefore strike a careful balance. On the one hand, God is not to be blamed for our suffering. On the other hand, our suffering happens under his divine rule over all things, so that we are not to explain our suffering as the result of any inadequacy or impotence on God’s part (Job 1:21-22; 2:10).

Given that God is in control of his creation, some people infer that if an individual suffers, he must be directly responsible for his suffering. It must somehow be his fault. This is what Job’s so-called friends argued (e.g., Job 4:7; 8:4-7), but at the end of the book God told them that they were wrong (Job 42:7). A person’s suffering is therefore not necessarily the direct result of his sin: sometimes it is, of course (if you abuse your body you will suffer for it), but more often it is not. Often, we simply do not know why we experience the suffering that comes upon us; God does not tell us (Job 38:2-4). One thing is clear, though: God is not under any obligation to his creatures (Job 41:11). If we receive anything good from God, that is a gift, not something he owes us. It is ironic that some evangelists within Christianity today, notably in the Word-Faith movement, actually try to argue that Job brought his suffering on himself. The whole point of the book is that we should trust God even when we are suffering undeservedly.

Romans and God’s solution to the problem of evil. Paul’s epistle to the Romans offers the most detailed and comprehensive exposition of the gospel—the good news of what God has done to resolve the problem of evil. Paul explains that sin has destructive consequences; it adversely affects the entire human race physically, sociologically, and psychologically (Rom. 1:24-32). While an individual may not be responsible for his own suffering, human suffering in general is the result of the sin that pervades humanity. And indeed all human beings, even seemingly very moral and religious people, are sinners who deserve God’s judgment (Rom. 2:1-3:20). Although God could justly consign all of us to eternal condemnation, he graciously has chosen not to do so. Instead, he sent Christ to suffer and die in our place to spare us that eternal judgment. God’s provision of his own Son to die for us proves that God truly loves us (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:6-8). When we are tempted to view our suffering as evidence that God doesn’t care about us, we need to remember that Christ suffered and died for us. We should also keep in mind that for those of us who trust in Christ, our present suffering is insignificant compared to our future glory (Rom. 8:18, 38-39). What was true for Joseph and his family physically is true for believers spiritually: God works everything together for our good (Rom. 8:28). How he does this is sometimes beyond our knowledge, but we should not be surprised by the fact that God’s ways are too great for us to fathom (Rom. 11:33-36).

Although we cannot completely understand all of the many aspects to the problem of pain and evil, we can understand enough to be part of the solution rather than merely part of the problem (which, as sinners, we all are). If you truly hate evil, repent of your own evil and turn to Jesus Christ in order to be reconciled to God. If you truly hate to see people in pain, do good to others by reaching out with comfort and help. If you truly want to contribute to the defeat of evil, preach the gospel (Rom. 10:14-17). In so doing, you will not only ease the pain of others but will be part of God’s plan to eliminate all pain and evil from his good creation.

Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman, Jr. 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists: Discover Why Believing in God Makes So Much Sense. Colorado Springs: Cook, 2002. Popular-level introduction to the positive evidences for the God of the Bible.
Bowman, Robert M., Jr. The Word-Faith Controversy: Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001. An even-handed historical and biblical critique of the teachings of the late Kenneth Hagin and other Word-Faith evangelists.
Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. Rev. and expanded ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004. For advanced students.
Geisler, Norman L. The Roots of Evil. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978. Basic treatment of the subject emphasizing a “greater-good” defense.
Geivett, R. Douglas. Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theodicy. Afterword by John Hick. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Excellent handling of the “evidential” problem of evil.
Kreeft, Peter. Making Sense Out of Suffering. Ann Arbor: Servant, 1986. Enjoyable analysis by a Catholic author.
Robert M. Bowman, Jr., is the President of the Center for Biblical Apologetics (