Does Suffering Disprove God?
If God is all-loving and God is all-powerful, why is there so much suffering, pain and evil in the world? That’s the question we’re asking this week.
We’re asking a real important question today:
Does the existence of suffering, pain, and evil in the world prove that God does not exist?
It’s a huge question in our day, in the Bay Area, in our world, and for a lot of you here.
I was at a conference where a young woman was talking about her dad. He was a brilliant scientist and devoted father who could make sense of everything.
She talked about how he could explain to her — in a way that was filled with magic and wonder — the connections between the second law of thermodynamics and the first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
But her story was filled with sorrow, because this brilliant father of hers suffered courageously with depression, and eventually the depression won.
The room was not big enough to hold all that grief.
A man I know was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his brother cared for him while his body wasted away.
Then, very suddenly, unexpectedly, his brother, his caretaker, died of a heart attack.
That man had to bury his brother who he thought was going to bury him.
A young boy grows up in a church, but he’s different. His patterns of attraction are different.
He’s made fun of and taunted and not wanted, and what should have been the safest place in the world for him was the most dangerous place.
It was a long time ago, but that wound is still there.
Sometimes I think if there was such a thing as a pain-o-meter — if it were possible to measure units of pain like we measure the depth of the ocean — how large would the sea of human sorrows be?
This is from the book of Job:
If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas… The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison. (Job 6:2-4)
Amazing statement from Job, like God is shooting poison arrows at him.
In 2004, an earthquake under the Indian Ocean unleashed the amount of energy equivalent to 550 million times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and 250,000 people were killed.
Every one of them was someone’s son or daughter, with hopes and dreams.
I remember it very well because my wife and I traveled to India with 50 other doctors and nurses in the days that followed the earthquake to set up clinics to serve those who were in desperate need of medical attention, some of whom had never seen a doctor before in their lives.
And I remember newspapers and conversation forums that were filled with the question we’re asking today — Is it possible to believe in a God who is all-loving (so he wants what is good), and all-powerful (so he’s able to make what is good), in a world with so much suffering and so much evil?
Archibald MacLeish wrote a play about Job where he expressed this problem in a single sentence — “If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, he is not good.”
It’s striking that one of the books that is most troubled and perplexed by human suffering is the Bible. The Bible has an awful lot to say about suffering.
Rather than try to sweep this under the rug, the writers of Scripture give very direct expressions of anguish, confusion, and rage about suffering and pain.
The Wisdom Literature — the book of Job and much of Psalms and Ecclesiastes — is more about this than anything else.
The book of Job is all about suffering.
Human beings are born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7)
Some of the Psalms like Psalm 22 are all about this.
The psalmist says words that Jesus quoted:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.” (Psalm 22:7-8)
The Bible is full of suffering and pain.
Really, the first two chapters in the Bible are about the universe before suffering, and the last two are about existence post-suffering, but most everything else in between is about suffering.
But here’s something I want you to consider — the existence of suffering was understood by the writers of Scripture as a result of the fall; and not part of God’s original creation.
This is a real important idea. There is a way things are supposed to be, and that way doesn’t include pain and suffering and evil.
Pain and suffering and evil come about because people are free and chose sin.
C.S. Lewis writes about this.
Free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata––of creatures that worked like machines––would hardly be worth creating.
There was actually a movie about this idea some time ago called The Stepford Wives.
Have you seen The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman?
It’s a suburb where real-life wives actually get replaced by identical-looking but robot wives.
Now think about this for a moment. If you’re a husband, imagine that this could actually happen. Would you want it?
Would you want your real-life, challenging, sometimes difficult, flesh-and-blood wife replaced by a robotic version of herself who was always smiling, always cooking your favorite meals, always laughing at your favorite jokes, always attentive to your needs, scheduling your favorite events, doing whatever she needed to do to make you happy? Would you want that?
No! The correct answer is no.
It’s not possible anyhow. You are not doing yourself any favors by saying yes.
Anyway, this means people must have the freedom to choose for there to be such a thing as people, which is fabulous.
It means there must be the freedom to choose, and that means the freedom to choose evil.
Now people sometimes wonder, “Couldn’t God create a world where people are free to choose but would always choose good?”
No. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have freedom and determinism.
It’s kind of like saying, “Couldn’t God make a square circle?” It’s not a limitation on God; it’s just the nature of logic.
So free will is oftentimes why we suffer.
Sometimes, maybe most of the time, we bring suffering on ourselves as a consequence of our actions.
Show of hands on this one. How many of you have ever gotten a speeding ticket?
Just take a look around the room.
Second question: How many were actually speeding when you got the ticket?
I got a ticket a while ago, and my first thought when I saw the flashing lights was, “Why me? Other people are way worse drivers than me.”
The answer, of course, is I was speeding.
In the Bible, there are places, like the book of Proverbs, that offer wisdom about this.
Drive wisely. Parent wisely. Handle your money wisely, your sexuality, your anger, your words. Don’t blame God, or the universe, or other people if you’ve made your own mess.
We all do, and we all need that wisdom, yet there are way more passages in the Bible that wrestle with the mystery of suffering.
You know, an interesting thing is this — mostly, the biblical writers don’t explain suffering to people. Mostly, they protest suffering to God.
From the book of Exodus, with Israel’s slavery in Egypt, to the suffering of Job, to the emptiness of the writer of Ecclesiastes, to psalms of complaint, to entire books like Lamentations. “Why God? How long? What for? God, have you forgotten? Do you hear? Will you act?”
It’s so fascinating. The Bible is not mostly written by people who explain evil and prove God’s existence.
It’s written by people who are disoriented, who are overwhelmed, who are troubled by evil, just like you and me.
I hate suffering and evil and hurt. I hate that people, people I love, have to carry burdens that crush them, that are unfair, that are unrelenting.
I wake up at night sometimes troubled by that, and I think of others who suffer way worse than I do, and I’m humbled. I’m reminded we all must find a way to live. We all must find a why to live.
All of us — Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, skeptic, none of the above — are united in the fellowship of grief and hurt and pain.
It’s the strangest thing. If you ask people why they don’t believe in God, the existence of pain, evil and suffering is probably the number-one answer, and yet (there’s an author named Barbara Brown Taylor who writes about this) most religions are actually born from suffering.
A young, very entitled prince named Siddhartha leaves his palace and sees a sick man, and an old man, and a dead body for the first time in his life; and he decides to devote himself to the problem of suffering — and Buddhism begins.
The story at the center of Israel is an exodus out of Egypt when the people of Israel were enslaved. And they did not know why their children were being murdered.
Christianity began with the life of Jesus who was impoverished and hounded during his ministry. The Gospels are unique among biography in focusing mostly on his humiliation and crucifixion. They’re sometimes called the “death story with an introduction.”
The prophet Isaiah says about him, “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
Now, I would argue that our outrage at unjust suffering actually points toward the existence of God.
An Oxford professor — C.S. Lewis — wrote how for many years his main reason for being an atheist was that the universe was so cruel, unjust, and unfair.
But over time he came to realize that if atheism were true there would be no grounds for this complaint. There would be no reason to expect justice in the first place.
Lewis writes this:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please me. Atheism turns out to be too simple.
Deep down, we know there is such a thing as justice, there is such a thing as fairness, and it’s not arbitrary.
We are rightly angered when it’s violated, and we demand justice.
There was a story written a while ago about a guy named Dave Hackler who, among other things, was a part-time umpire in a recreational baseball league.
He tells a story about how he was driving too fast in the snow in Boulder, Colorado and a policeman pulled him over and gave him a speeding ticket.
He tried to talk him out of it. He told him about how he was worried about his insurance, how he was normally a safe driver, and why he was in a hurry.
The police officer told him if he didn’t like the ticket, he could make an appeal in court.
Fast forward to the first game of the next baseball season. Dave is umpiring behind home plate.
Guess who the first batter was? The police officer who gave him the ticket.
They recognized each other.
The police officer said, “So, how did the thing with the ticket go?”
Dave told him, “You better swing at everything.”
There is such a thing as justice.
Where did it come from?
See, the whole notion of justice presupposes, demands that existence is more than just a universe full of a bunch of atoms rearranging themselves. There is not just a way things are; there is a way things are supposed to be.
Evolution is simply about the survival of the fittest, but that’s not enough to explain moral reality. It explains a lot, but not that.
Innocent people should not starve. They should not be oppressed. They should not be abused.
Now, none of this proves that there is a God, but it does show that our outrage at unjust suffering is actually a hard thing for secularism to account for.
Secularism sometimes offers the illusion of control. It’s kind of ironic.
Because of medicine and technology and wealth, we have reduced many forms of suffering in our day. We live longer, healthier, cleaner, safer, more educated and affluent lives, but that very progress often feeds the illusion that we’re in control.
Often, we want to make sense of suffering, because we think if we can make sense of it then we can avoid it, we can control it.
If people hear about someone contracting lung cancer, very often their first question is, “Did he smoke?” because I can not smoke; then it won’t happen to me.
I can parent better; then my kids will turn out the way I want.
I can work harder; then I won’t suffer vocational pain.
I can adopt a healthy lifestyle; then I won’t lose my health.
Ironically, we suffer way less than people in the ancient world did, but we fear suffering way more than they did.
In the ancient world, by contrast, part of wisdom was to cultivate awareness that suffering is inevitable.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said that you should constantly remind yourself and those nearest to you of your vulnerability and your mortality.
He said one time, “What harm is there, while you are kissing your child, to murmur softly, ‘Tomorrow you will die’?”
Of course, Epictetus’ kids all ended up in therapy.
In the ancient world they knew about suffering.
In medieval Europe, 20 percent of all children did not reach their first birthday. 50 percent of all children died before they were 10 years old. And people in that day loved their kids just as much as you and I do.
The average lifespan at that time in the world was about 35 years old.
They had a worldview that could make sense of suffering far better than most people in our day, when we think we can control it or use technology or legislation to outlaw it.
One of the great questions you have to ask of any worldview is — What does it have to say to a suffering individual?
Biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins describes the message of secularism like this:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.
The first church I worked at, a young man in our youth group died of cancer. Can you imagine sitting at the side of his bed and saying, “Some people get lucky. Not you. No rhyme, no reason, no justice, no hope.”
I believe despair is not just bad and it’s not just unpleasant. I believe it’s wrong. It’s incorrect. It’s false. It’s based on a false look at the world.
There’s a strange thing about suffering. Suffering points us beyond ourselves.
We often try to numb our pain with work, or shopping, or comfort foods (that’s interesting language) or a forbidden website, or a few drinks.
Every addiction begins as an escape from pain, every one of them, and every addiction ends with enslavement to pain. Every one of them. We often try to hide our pain.
There was a famous story in the Manual of Psychological Medicine that was published around 1850.
An Italian actor went to see a doctor about the depression he suffered from.
The doctor recommended that he go to see the acting of a famous comic named Carlini.
The doctor said, “Your depression would have to be very deep indeed if the acting of the fabulous Carlini does not remove it.”
The patient sighed — “I am Carlini.”
Lewis Smedes wrote that we can distinguish between two primary ways of suffering. This is where suffering and hope begin to intersect.
There is suffering from. And there is suffering with.
We can suffer from something, or we can suffer with someone.
We suffer from painful events, experiences and losses large and small — loss of sleep, bad traffic, bad hair days, divorce, bankruptcy, cancer.
When you’re experiencing something you very much want not to, you’re suffering from.
But then there’s suffering with, and that’s something, oddly enough, that people choose.
This is voluntary suffering.
We stop what we’re doing.
We sit beside a hospital bed.
We listen to a mom who has lost her child.
We bring a meal to someone who has lost a parent.
We sit with those who are grieving, and we can’t fix it and we can’t make it go away. We can do nothing but grieve with them, yet our willingness to grieve with them helps somehow. They’re less alone. Part of their grief is somehow shifted to us, and we have a bond, a connection (I’ve seen this, I’ve experienced this) that is deeper than it was before.
Suffering with can hurt every bit as much as suffering from, but it often involves a breathtaking kind of goodness and nobility.
And this brings us to the heart of the story about Jesus.
Jesus was the master of suffering with. There has never been anyone who did this like he did. Ever.
He suffered with lepers.
He wept over lost people.
He listened to the scandal-ridden.
He had compassion on the doubters.
He suffered rejection, mockery, and humiliation on behalf of all sinners.
We could do a whole message just around the sufferings of Jesus:
Born in a little manger, having to leave his home, flee an infanticide, live in Egypt, face anti-Semitism there, live in a poor family, work as an obscure carpenter, lose his dad, go through a ministry where he wept when his friend Lazarus died, where he wept over Jerusalem, where he was hungry, where he was thirsty, where he was tired.
When they cut him he bled. They rejected him. His friends abandoned him. One of his disciples betrayed him. When they hung him he died. He’s called a Man of Sorrows.
The writer of Hebrews says:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears. (Hebrews 5:7)
Before this week, I never thought about Jesus’ life being marked by loud cries and tears.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
The place of his ultimate suffering was the cross — suffering from sin, guilt, and death; and suffering with you and me.
We wonder in our pain and suffering, “Where is God?”
He’s there on a cross — nails pounded into the hands and feet of God. Jesus reveals to us what no human being had ever imagined before him — a wounded God, a broken God, a scarred God.
John Stott wrote a book about the cross of Jesus, and he says this:
I have entered many Buddhist temples and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, with the ghost of a smile. But each time I turn away again to the lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.
Isaiah said this about him:
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
See, we do not honor life, we do not honor those we love, we do not honor the courage of so many who’ve experienced loss nobly by capitulating to despair.
So we fight.
Jesus does not tell us we will not suffer; he says we will not suffer alone.
There was a time when the disciple Thomas said he could not believe Jesus had really been raised from the dead, and Jesus appeared to him and said, “Put your fingers here. See my hands.”
This is so amazing. In other words, Jesus has a new resurrection body. It’s real.
He’s able to eat. He’s able to do remarkable things, pass through a locked door, but in his resurrected body he still carries the scars of those nails.
God says one day he will wipe away every tear, but Jesus still carries his scars.
The early followers of Jesus were staggered by this, and they wrote that maybe Jesus retained his scars not because he couldn’t heal them but because they reflected his love more than unwounded hands ever could.
Maybe there’s a beauty to a wounded body that an unwounded body does not know.
Paul says that Jesus knew unimaginable glory, that through him the stars in the skies were made.
I think often we want to turn our scars into stars. Jesus turned his stars into scars. Who would make up a story like that?
Now, this points us to our calling — to why you and I are here now as a church.
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)
There is suffering from, but there is suffering with. We’re called to suffer with.
How do we suffer with someone who lived 2,000 years ago?
Well, Jesus told us how — “Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.”
Jesus points to suffering human beings, every one of them, and says, “I’m there. I’m there. I’m there. I weep. I bleed. I hurt. I die.”
When we mourn with those who mourn.
When we listen.
When we sit beside someone who is sick.
When we spend time and energy to come alongside someone who does not have a home.
When we sponsor and take the time to write a hungry child.
When we give, maybe even give sacrificially to those in extreme poverty.
When we lead a small group so that someone who is alone or someone whose heart is breaking has a home.
You are suffering with Jesus.
You are suffering with Jesus and that suffering is not in vain.
A deep need for suffering people is that good can come out of their suffering. Not so much that it can be explained but so it can be redeemed.
A parent who loses a child to drug overdose wants to help other parents.
A mom who loses a child to a drunk driver starts an organization to fight drunk driving.
A man who loses his legs in an accident ends up devoting his life to helping quadriplegics.
The movement of Jesus got started by two moments — ultimate suffering in the crucifixion and then the ultimate hope in the resurrection.
Jesus and then those who followed him endured suffering in a way previously unknown to humanity because they had a hope previously unknown to humanity.
When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he put it like this:
Therefore we do not lose heart. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)
Those are amazing words by a man who knew a lot about suffering.
Paul had been shipwrecked, flogged, stoned, imprisoned, persecuted, starved, impoverished, and ultimately he was martyred, yet he calls these troubles light and momentary. Are you kidding me?
He knew suffering, but what he’s saying is — you put all that suffering on one scale, every tear shed by every broken heart, and then on the other scale you set a radiant, unending, eternal goodness that we cannot yet see but Jesus can and promises is coming, and Paul calls that eternal glory.
Is the glory then worth the trouble now? Is the hope that big?
I want to try to show this in the most concrete way I can. This is the best way I can think of.
I want to show you a video for just a minute. It’s a little kid who’s about to do down a ski jump for the first time in her life. It scares her out of her mind.
I want you to notice the before and after contrast. It’s a little parable about what life is like on the other side.
Video: Girls first ski jump
Isn’t that great?
You see, that’s the eternal weight of glory — “Woo-hoo! It was just the suspense on the top that freaks you out.”
One day you’re going to go down that jump. That’s called death.
Although Jesus says, “The one who trusts in me, the one who believes in me, will not taste death.”
As soon as you say, “Here I go,” then it’s an eternal weight of glory.
Now when you’re in the ski box on this side, where we are right now, you would love to be excused from all the fear, and all the worry, and all the terror, and all the awfulness of it, but on the other side of the jump Paul says, “All that we experience doesn’t get erased, doesn’t get removed; it gets redeemed.”
Paul is saying, the resurrected Jesus is saying, “The redemption of all things throughout all eternity will be more glorious than you can possibly imagine, so whatever you’re going through, don’t lose heart.”
You lose a child.
You lose a spouse or a parent.
Your heart is wrecked.
You go through a divorce.
You get fired.
You’re all alone.
You feel guilty because of something you’ve done.
You’re abused or you’ve abused someone.
Your health is gone.
You’re scared to death.
To everyone who is suffering, you are not at the end of your run. We’re still on this side of the jump.
There is an eternal weight of glory waiting for you, and when it comes (and one day it will come), we will say to each other through all eternity — “Light and momentary. Light and momentary. He redeemed it all. He was up to something so good and so enormous, and we had no idea, but now we know.”
Tim Keller writes about a wonderful line Tolkien had in The Lord of the Rings right at the end.
Sam Gamgee sees Gandalf, and he says, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Yes, it is.
It’s not just that suffering is going to end, although it will. It will be healed. It will be reversed. It will be undone. Everything sad is going to come untrue.
C.S. Lewis had a wonderful line. One time he wrote that heaven will work backward.
It has already started.
Heaven has already turned the cross, which was the ultimate instrument of violent hate and injustice, into the ultimate expression of triumphant love.
And it will one day turn agony — every agony, your agony — into glory, endless glory, unimaginable glory, an eternal weight of glory.
But in the meantime, I want you to know — you are not alone. You are not alone.
We gather together to love each other and to carry burdens.
If you’ve been carrying one, it would be a great day to just set it down.
Would you bow your heads right now and close your eyes?
I want you to come with me to the Man of Sorrows.
We bring all of our tears, all of our grief, all of our wasting away, all of our disappointments, to the foot of the cross, this place of ultimate suffering that has become, by the grace of a suffering God, the place of ultimate hope. We don’t seek comfort; we seek a cross.