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FAQ#8: How does Christianity account for all the suffering and evil in the world?
It must be acknowledged up front that there are no complete answers to this question, and that the partial answers we can relate may offer little solace to a person who is going through a time of personal pain or loss. No one can say for sure why a particular evil event happens, or why an individual suffers as they do. However, there are some things that can be said about the state of the world in general, and we would do well to start there.
The question of suffering has arisen throughout human history in response to the strange dual nature of our world. On the one hand, we find ourselves inhabiting a place of remarkable beauty, majesty and complexity, leaving us convinced that there must be some benevolent power beyond ourselves that set it all in motion. But, on the other hand, we also experience incidents of unspeakable evil and suffering. Innocent children are abused or suffer starvation, natural disasters sweep away entire towns, people kill each other over pocket change. And when things like this happen, we can't help but feel that there is no God; that the world is a place without ultimate meaning or hope.
English author G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Bad is so bad that we cannot but think good is an accident; good is so good that we feel certain evil could be explained." Most of us can relate to this ambiguity, but in the end, how is evil to be explained?
Well, the Bible goes a long way toward describing how this present state of affairs came about. First, it tells us that the world was created completely good and perfect, with no evil or suffering. However, the possibility of evil was present, because God gave the first humans free will. They could choose to live in harmony with God, or they could rebel and take life on their own terms. Unfortunately, they chose the latter course, and evil was introduced into the world.
Now, one might well ask why God allowed even the possibility of evil. Certainly he could have eliminated any choice, but God did not want humans to be automatons who would be compelled to obey and love him. He wanted an open, mutual relationship with his creatures, and that required freedom. Indeed, one must admit that the vast majority of suffering in the world today is still a direct result of human choices. Some of us choose to hoard our resources and others starve, for example.
But what of other kinds of suffering? The kind that results from earthquakes or genetic disorders rather than any person's choices? The Bible is not totally clear on that subject, but it does seem to indicate that all of creation has been marred by the sin of humanity, which results in some outcomes that God did not originally intend.
Also, it must be noted that the Bible emphasizes over and over that this present life is not the final story. It is only a brief prelude to the world to come--a world which will finally be free of evil and injustice, a world in which the wrongs will be set right and every tear will be wiped away.
Now, does any of this console the parents whose child has died, or the person who has just learned they have inoperable cancer? Probably not. In those kinds of times we want clear answers. We want to know why our child had to die, why we had to come down with cancer. God could have done something, but he didn't.
Perhaps the best answer is that God has done something, though not what we expected. God has not chosen to step in and eliminate every single incident of evil and suffering (if he did, each of us would be swept away in the house-cleaning). Instead, he decided to invade earth himself in the Person of Jesus Christ to walk among us and share in our pain. Although suffering still exists, through Christ God redeems that suffering and brings good out of it. We can receive forgiveness for our own sins and strength when impacted by the sins of others.
So where is God when we suffer? He is offering to walk with us. If we are willing to receive him, he longs to guide us, teach us, comfort us, and prepare us for that day when we will see him face to face and wrong will be no more.
Are you ready for the comforter?