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The Problem of Pain and Suffering

Updated on July 22, 2013

July 1994, the world was shocked with the suicide of a 33-years old South African Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter. He photographed a strong emotion-provoking picture of an emaciated girl crawling her way to a feeding centre, with a vulture stalking behind her ready to grab its lunch. What caused this “successful” photojournalist to commit suicide? Raised in the midst of turmoil, apartheid, civil war, sight of starvation and murder, added with the death of his best friend when he's photographing a gun battle in Tokoza, all this gives us the speculation of a depressed heart. His father, Mr Jimmy Carter said: “Kevin always carried around the horror of the work he did.”1 This is just one of the example of suffering that surfaced in the media and made the world weep. It is beyond doubt that there are much more cases that none will ever know. More than 50% of the world population are living with less than US$2.5 a day and 24,000 children (under 5 years old) died every day.2 This means that in the period of 1 year, the death toll is similar to that of Holocaust. They died an invisible death, secluded from the eye of the world.

In 2008 a comic titled as “Jesus Christ in the name of the gun” emerges in the media. It is an explosively hilarious comic that tells the story of Jesus coming back to earth to deal with the problem of suffering, which is the Holocaust by the Nazi in its first volume. Jesus is depicted as having failure about his plan of peace on earth, and in his non-omnipotence he is coming back to earth to deal with it, with violence of course instead of love. God's message of salvation and love in the cross is deemed as failure in the name of suffering on earth. The classical explanation that 'everything happens for a reason' is bombarded and scrutinized heavily, draped in a hilarious comics. Failure to understand and deal with the problem of suffering may bring up scrutiny against religion and it will be a barrier for a belief in God.

Even more than just requiring explanation, religions is also accused of causing more suffering. Christopher Hitchens begins his arguments against God by giving examples of religiously inspired cruelty that he witnessed in several cities in the world. There he observed discrimination, blood, genocide, murder and atrocities committed in the name of religions. “Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.”3 Adherents of different religions fight against each other,

...religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred, with members of each group talking of the other precisely the tones of the bigot. The Christians eat defiled pig meat and the Jews swill poisonous alcohol. Buddhist and Muslim Sri Lankans blamed the wine-oriented Christmas celebrations of 2004 for the immediately following tsunami. Catholics are dirty and have too many children. Muslims breed like rabbits and wipe their bottoms with the wrong hand. Jews have lice in their beards and seek the blood of Christian children to add flavor and zest to their Passover matzos. And so it goes on.4

Apparently religion also intensified human hatreds and sufferings. What, then, is the best explanation for this problem of suffering? Is it true that the presence of suffering and a loving God is contradictory to each other?

The Origin of Good and Evil

When we are asking about suffering that often we associate as evil, at the first place we need to ask what is good and evil, i.e. what do we mean by the word good and evil. When we said that something is good or something is evil, it means we have a standard to measure how good is good and how evil is evil. Without this standard, we do not have rights to use the word good and evil, and they are devoid of meaning. This terminology is parallel to that of light-darkness and hot-cold. Light and darkness is just a state, not an essence. The essence of light-darkness is photon; the absence of photon is called darkness. On the other hand if photon is present, it will bounce from the object that we want to see and go to our retina, hence we see light. In the same way, statistical mechanics have found that what we call hot and cold is just a state of high energy and low energy respectively. When an object has a higher energy than the hands that we use to touch it, energy will be transferred from the object to our hand, resulting in what we called as hot, and vice versa. The essence of light-darkness and hot-cold is photon and energy respectively, what about good and evil? In contrast to light-darkness and hot-cold which is an impersonal force, good and evil is personal, pointing to a person. It is a prescriptive force, not descriptive force that could be explained by physical laws. Goodness finds its source in God's character, and the goodness is God's character itself.5 This means that evil is the deprivation or lacking of good; it is a corrupted state of good. From this perspective, there could not be a totally corrupted state. A totally rusted car is no car at all.6 Evil is like a parasite that damages its host, which is goodness. When something is declared as good, it must be perfectly good without blemishes at all. Little rotten dot in an apple will make the whole apple bad.

Goodness has primacy and preeminence; He is God himself that dwells in eternity. When he created angels, some of them rebelled against God. Their substance, which is goodness, has been corrupted by the pride of their heart. Worst still, they are eternal beings and the decision that they made will lasts for eternity. They are trapped in this corrupted state. In contrast to other religion, only in Christianity does the force of evil called the fallen angel. Going to the accounts of creation, God created the world together with human beings and said it was good.7 So we have in our stage 3 main players: God, humans and the Serpent. The Serpent deceived the humans and succeeded to do so, with the humans choosing freely to disobey God. Out of his love, God did not strike the Serpent at that time; would you incarcerate your children the whole of their life in fear of danger outside the house? The virtue of Goodness is love, and genuine love is not a forced love, but a love out of choices or free will. For God to destroy evil would ultimately be evil itself since it would take away the greatest good-the ability to love God.8 Human's righteousness had to be confirmed through trial (Gen. 2:17; 3:1-21).9 However, it is arguable that even though the Serpent did not entice the humans to rebel against God, the Fall will still happened not due to the temptation by the serpent but by the temptation of human heart. Who entice Lucifer to rebel against God? None, it was his weighty pride that make him fall down. The likeness of God that humans possessed beforehand was corrupted, but there is still a way: humans are bound in time and they could repent before they died and go to eternity. Should humans also ate the fruit from the tree of life, this way may have been closed.10

God made a free world and hence a potential for evil to emerge. This is plausibly the best possible way to the best world. Take the free will and you get robots; let the humans fall and some of them may come to repentance and hence true love. The cross of Christ actualizes this possibility for humans to repent from their rebellion and return to Goodness. When we talk about free will, do we compromise God's sovereignty in determining our steps? Not at all,

A simpler, yet accurate, way to understand how something can be determined and still be freely chosen is the example of watching a videotape. Let's say that for some reason you weren't able to watch the Super Bowl live, so you asked your friend to videotape it. When you finally have the time to sit down and watch it, you are watching a game that is determined. But every play and action that you are observing was freely chosen.11

Job rebuked by his Friends
Job rebuked by his Friends | Source

From Evil to Suffering

Evil has invaded human's heart, corrupting its initial goodness. Humans are now in his/her fallen and corrupted state. Although created in the image of God, we have lose our likeness to God. In our desire, then, we tend to oppose goodness. The manifestations of this evil heart is wars, murder, rape, adultery, poverty, betrayal, slander, etc; in other words: suffering. Here we have to distinguish the suffering that is caused by evil and those that is not. The feeling of thirsty may be suffering, but imagine what will happen if that feeling is removed. We will die of dehydration without knowing it, and of course this feeling of thirsty is not evil. When we talk about suffering here, we are referring to the suffering that is caused by evil as defined above.

Suffering is mainly caused by other humans that has fallen short of goodness and tend to hurt others. Problems are caused by the evil that emerges from the free will that other humans beings possessed. Why don't God stop these fallen human beings from causing suffering in this world? It is the same as asking God to force them not to do what they want to do. In that case, it is not a free world of humans but a world full of robots. God is love and not compulsion, to ask God to coerce them to do good is to ask God to go against Himself. How about other sufferings that is not caused by human's fallen nature such as natural disaster? Sadly due to the human nature, the ground (nature) is also cursed as it was previously the responsibility of humans.12 In one sense, the natural disaster are caused by human's fall, but sometimes it is also caused by the negligence of human's stewardship towards nature. If you dump garbage to the river, do you blame God when the flood comes? When you cut down the forests, do you blame God when the landslide comes? It is often that humans complained on the problem of suffering and asked where is God at the same time they do nothing to relieve the suffering. These people are not really complaining, they are just using suffering as a reason to justify their rebellion against God. In fact, most people that complained to God are the one who is not suffering as much. Just look at how so many people throughout history suffers and believes God at the same time.13

All these theodicy are of course just human's thinking and it may not be the case. Just like some people use suffering as the possibility to deny God's existence, we argue a possibility and/or permission for the coexistence of God and evil. However, God through his sovereignty is not obliged to explain. By his failure to defend himself, God is claiming his sovereign right to be trusted and believed, whatever suspicions his actions may provoke in human minds.14 We could not explain some occasion of suffering, for example like the disaster that blew off Job. Job lived righteous in the God’s eyes, but one day he suddenly lost all his wealth, suffers exceedingly, and “without any cause” told by God. Job asks God too why he suffers (Job 23:1-7, 31:35). What is God’s answer to his questions?

God “answers” Job:

Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. "Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God's, and can your voice thunder like his?15

and a lot of God’s answers which in fact is a series of questions to Job. Job answers:

Then Job replied to the LORD: "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. "You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."16

God does not have to justify His actions to His creatures. He is not obliged to answer all our questions. If we know all the question that God asks Job, it seems we are not human but God. Yeah, human’s ratio is far below God’s, because God is the source of our ratio. His plan is above all our plan. God is the creator and we are the creation. God control everything and we do not know everything. This is, of course, is not a blind faith. God could have explained to Job that all the calamities that falls on him comes from Satan, but he didn't. If God explained this to Job, the next time Job suffered he will ask God again. Rather, God requires Job to have faith and trust in him.

Job's Tormentors
Job's Tormentors | Source

The Ultimate Solution

All of the arguments above deals mainly with the rationalistic mechanism of the existence of evil and suffering. However, should we present these arguments to a real suffering person, it was beyond question that the problem will not be solved; yet even more pronounced. A suffering person needs to be attended with empathy and love, not with arguments lest we become like Job's friends. Isn't this exactly what Jesus has done? God did not just say words to comfort us, but 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us'.17 John R. W. Stott puts it best:

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross....In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?....He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross, which symbolizes divine suffering.18

Jesus take part in our humanity on his incarnation, born in poverty, to experience a devastating and embarrassing death. He is not a God that is far away to access whenever we suffered, but he is just beside us to comfort us. And as he has experienced suffering himself, he knows best what is suffering. It is the highest form of empathy. The supreme answer on the problem of suffering is not word of explanations, but a person: Jesus himself. On his first coming he suffered and died to grant us salvation and grace. On the second coming, evil is to be defeated, the earth will be renewed, God's people will enter into the eternal bliss, 'And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.'19

The ultimate Goodness will put an end in time and renew the world. The righteous will live with him for eternity and love him, this time when the love has been tested during the existence of time. As there is no compulsion, those who rebels against God will also get what they desired: eternal separation from the Good.

Recommended Books


  1., April 24, 2010.
  2. This data is based on World Bank Development Indicators 2008 and UNICEF.
  3. Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great (London: Atlantic Books, 2008), p. 25.
  4. Ibid, 36
  5. Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource guide to Christian Apologetics (Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Reference, 2006), p. 347.
  6. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1999), p. 220.
  7. Genesis 1:31
  8. Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource guide to Christian Apologetics (Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Reference, 2006), p. 348.
  9. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), p. 158.
  10. Genesis 3:22-24
  11. Norman Geisler & Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2001), p. 248.
  12. Genesis 3:17-18
  13. For the example of this, look at Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), p. 47-48 on his interview with Peter Kreeft.
  14. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), p. 172
  15. Job 40:7-9 (NIV)
  16. Job 42:1-6 (NIV)
  17. John 1:14
  18. John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 311.
  19. Revelation 21:4 (KJV)


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