We've all heard it numerous times: "Why would a God who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful allow bad things to happen to good people?" We can also turn the question around: "Why would an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow good things to happen to bad people?" After all, while seeing good people suffer is horrible, it's not much fun seeing evil people having fun either.
It has to be said, though, that this question is sometimes asked in innocence by people with a genuine desire to understand what seems impossible to understand. Other times it's asked by people who have suffered or whose loved ones have known grief and loss. They honestly want to know: How could God let this happen to me and to mine? Why wouldn't God stop this pain and help me? After all, sometimes we experience devastating suffering. Just consider the Holocaust, the abduction and murder of a child, or the long and painful death of a kind and gentle person.
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The critic of Christianity would respond that God is either not all-knowing, not all-powerful, or not all-good. I would say that the question—and even the problem—are actually more of a difficulty and a conundrum for the nonbeliever than for the Christian.
Eternity Makes the Difference
The materialist and the atheist, those who would deny God, believe that at death, all is over. Life is finished, it is done and complete; we are dust, mere food for worms. To these people, pain has no meaning other than what it is: pure, unadulterated suffering, without any redeeming purpose. To the atheist, there may be a certain formless heroism attached to the person who faces suffering with courage and without complaining. But if we are all body and flesh, and no soul and spirit, if we are mere products of a selfish gene and nothing more, one wonders why this heroism would in any way be significant.
There is, though, a greater point, and that is that the atheist is convinced that these years we spend on earth—perhaps 80 or more if we're lucky, and only a handful if we're not—are everything we have, and constitute the total human experience. Christians, on the other hand, believe that these years on earth, while important and to be used wisely and to be enjoyed, are preparation for a far greater life to come. They are, in effect, a thin ray of light from the great sunshine that is eternity and life in heaven with God. My end, as Mary Queen of Scots said it, is my beginning. And her end was at the sharp point of an axe, as she was beheaded on the orders of her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I. Queen Mary was certain that there was an existence beyond that on earth.
Pain Awakens Us to God
While it's neurotic rather than Christian to welcome suffering, and no intelligent and comprehending Christian would welcome suffering for its own sake, the Bible actually makes it quite clear that faith in Jesus Christ does not guarantee a good life, but a perfect eternity. Indeed, there is more prediction in Scripture of a struggle on earth for the believer than there is of gain and success. There may be Christian sects that promise material wealth and all sorts of triumphs in exchange for faith, but this is a non-Christian, even an anti-Christian bargain, and has never been something that orthodox Christianity would affirm. Christians believe that this life on earth is only the land of shadows and that real life hasn't yet begun. So yes, bad things happen to good people.
Some might argue that Christian belief is merely an excuse to escape the harshness of reality, but that's no more reasonable than arguing that atheism is a mere excuse to escape the harsh reality of judgment and the thought of an eternity spent without and away from God. The more important point, though, is that the oft-repeated criticism that bad things happen to good people says nothing at all about God, but everything about human beings. Pain may not be desirable, but it's only a feeling, as is joy. Yet pain is not mere suffering, but also a warning sign and a way to protect us against danger. That something may hurt is undeniable, and that we will all feel some sort of pain at some point is inevitable, but whether this pain is our doing or God's is something entirely different. The all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God allows us to suffer, just as he allows us all sorts of things, because we have the freedom to behave as we will. But he has also provided a place with the greatest contentment we can imagine if only we listen to him, listen to his Son, and listen to his church.
As to the specific issue of pain and suffering, C. S. Lewis, who watched his beloved wife die of cancer, put it this way: "But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." God's plan is for us to return to him, and to lead the best possible life on earth; sometimes we need to be reminded of our purpose. Pain is a sharp, clear tool to achieve that purpose. A needle may be necessary to prevent disease or infection; nobody welcomes or enjoys the injection, but it prevents a far greater suffering, just as what may seem like even intolerable pain now will lead to far greater happiness later.
Lewis also wrote:
By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively his lovingness …. By Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves" and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all."
Today this applies far more obviously even than when Lewis was working and writing—he died in 1963. If I want something, runs the modern idiom, I need something; and if I need something, thus I must have something. To the Christian, however, God knows our needs better than we do, and also knows that our wants and our needs are distinctly different. Which leads to the challenge of why God would allow us to go and do wrong, or why he allows us to want something that's not necessarily to our eternal advantage, or even to our immediate good.
Freedom to Choose
We have freedom, and we have free will. We have that free will because Godis love, and no lover would allow anything else. I always remember when our first child, a son, was around 12 years old and attended a school a few miles from where we lived. We had driven him to school each day, but it was now time for him to take public transit. We worried about letting him go off alone in the crowded and, frankly, sometimes dangerous big city. But it was time, it was the right time. Off he went. And there was me, waiting at the end of the day, sitting by the door, anxious to see him come home. When he did—totally ignoring me beyond a perfunctory teenage grunt of acknowledgement—I was so incredibly happy and relieved. My wife and I had to let him go, but we were so relieved when he returned. Imagine, then, how God feels when we return home to him. He lets us go, he sets us free, he acts as a loving father does, but he so much wants us home again. That God allows us freedom, and sometimes a freedom to disobey, says everything about God's love for us, and nothing against it.
Yet while he wants us to return to him, he doesn't force us to take this course of action, and if we choose an eternity without him, what we have chosen is hell. This is important, because a lot of people purposely or accidentally misunderstand the concept. Hell is not so much a place of punishment, as a place where we do not know and do not see God. We are creatures made in his image, made to love him and to be loved by him, and our vocation after this sojourn on earth is to be united with our maker in heaven.
But we have a choice. We have freedom, we have the right to choose, even the right to choose to do the wrong thing. God in his ultimate love even gives us the right to choose not to return to him, and to choose to spend eternity without him, in a place we call hell. So atheists scream at a God in whom they do not believe, for allowing them to reject him in whom they do not believe, for allowing them to spend the rest of eternity in a place without him in whom they do not believe. It's all a little odd and contradictory. The pain that must occur in heaven when we reject God and choose to live in a Godless place is beyond our comprehension, but this freedom of choice proves God's love and not his indifference.
God Is Not Impossible to Find
Nor is it the case that he makes himself difficult to find, which leads to the accusation that a truly good God would make it easier, even inevitable and unavoidable, that we would all follow him and find our way to heaven. But this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of God's involvement and intervention in history, and—again—of what choice is all about, and how enmeshed love and choice always have to be.
On the one hand, if he made himself entirely obvious, only a fool or a masochist would purposely reject him, and he would effectively be giving us no choice at all. Intimidating as it may seem, we are also being tested, and judged—and judgment is the last thing that modern, Western humanity is willing to be subjected to. But remember that that same modern, Western person often complains about fairness, or lack of same. It would be horribly unfair if anybody and everybody, irrespective of their choices, spent eternity in joy and completeness with God in heaven. It's likely that the same people who complain about bad things happening to good people now would then loudly protest that it was wrong that such good things—actually the best things possible—should happen to bad people, some of them the worst people possible.
On the other hand, if he made himself almost impossible to find, God would be playing cruel games with us and would be loveless, like some supreme vivisectionist, possessing power but showing no affection and without any responsibility. So he makes himself entirely recognizable and attainable, if we have the slightest inclination to find him. He sent us monarchs, prophets, martyrs, signs and symbols, miracles, and finally his Son, to die in agony for us and then through the Resurrection prove God's love, power, and being. Not a bad set of clues when you think about it. If you think about it. But you do, yes, have to think about it.
Michael Coren is the author of 14 bestselling books, including Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity, from which this article is excerpted. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Coren. Reprinted by permission from McClelland & Stewart.
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