By Andy Robison
Why do bad things happen to good people? This is the question of the ages—one of monumental significance in the discussion of the existence of God.
Atheists argue that God cannot have all three traditional characteristics, that is, that He is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving (omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent). Since there is suffering, they say that at least one of those characteristics fails Him. “If He is powerful enough to stop it and knows about it, He must not care enough to stop it,” they allege. Or, “If He is powerful enough and loving enough to stop it, He must not know about suffering.” Thirdly, they posit, “If He knows about it and cares enough to stop it, He must not be powerful enough.” From Ivy League academia to street smarts, people use this kind of argument (differently worded in many cases, to be sure) to attack the existence of God. How can this be answered? Can it be answered?
First, realize that when God created everything, it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He made no error or pain. Man was given freewill with the placement of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden, and man was warned (Genesis 2:16-17). Where there is choice, there must be consequences. Man chose unwisely, and the consequences of death and suffering were set in motion (Romans 5:12-14). The existence of suffering in the world is not God’s fault; it is altogether man’s fault.
There are several reasons men might suffer, but they are all traced back to sin. First, one might suffer because of his own sin. This is not always the case, but sometimes it is. Job’s friends tried to make him out to be some kind of profligate sinner, because they held to the theory of retribution—one suffering must surely deserve all that he is getting. One of them even said, “Know therefore that God exacts from you less than your iniquity deserves” (Job 11:6). Still, it is possible to bring on one’s own suffering by one’s own sin. An alcoholic or a drug addict knows the pain of self-inflicted illnesses and perhaps arrests.
Secondly, it is possible to suffer because of someone else’s sins. A drunk driver might kill an innocent, traveling family. That family suffers because of the sins of someone else. That is where people cry, “Unfair!” I guess it is unfair, but in this world of freewill, that is how it has to work. If God took away consequences, he would essentially be taking away choice. If my choices had no consequences, would they be choices at all? Could a drunk be drunk enough to unwittingly kill a deserving family but not an undeserving family?
The laws of nature factor in as well. God set in motion the laws of nature. He, throughout history, has only temporarily suspended them for miraculous verification of His messages (Exodus 5-12; Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:1-4). All such miraculous deeds have now ended (1 Corinthians 13:8-13; Acts 8:14-17). If, as some seem to expect, God would halt the course of natural law whenever it would accidentally (or purposely) hurt someone (e.g., misuse of fire or water), we would have no knowledge of natural law on which to depend. Yet, we depend on a lot of natural law for our good (use of fire, water, chemical reactions for prescription drugs, etc.).
Thirdly, one might suffer because of sin’s very presence in the world. After sin entered the world, a totally new set of circumstances followed. There would be death and disease. Some cite evidence that a major climate change would have indeed happened after the global flood of Noah’s day, which was brought about because of man’s wickedness (Genesis 6:5). The “world that then existed perished” (2 Peter 3:6). Perhaps the changed world allows for more climate disturbances (hurricanes, tornadoes) that hurt people. In other words, innocent people are hurt by natural disasters and by seemingly random incidents of disease.
Still, the existence of God need not be questioned. There is plenty of evidence otherwise (in design, cause-and-effect) that points to His reality. Furthermore, on top of all that, He has indeed done something about suffering. He did not take it away because that would have taken away freewill. Rather, He came and suffered with us representatively in the person of His Son (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:5-7). “He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Now, having been risen from the dead, He sits at God’s right hand to mediate on behalf of those still on earth suffering (Hebrews 2:18; 7:25).
Suffering is a real problem. We are right to do all we can to avoid and alleviate it. However, remember, it is not God’s fault. Neither His existence nor His love can be questioned because of it. In fact, through it, He shows Himself to be “the Father of all mercies, and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).