Dr Andy Bannister continues his series tackling common questions or objections to the Christian faith
You only have to open the newspaper or turn on the news to see daily examples of suffering. Today, it may be Aleppo and Iraq; tomorrow, it will be some other war-torn corner of the world.
We are surrounded by a myriad examples of man’s inhumanity to man. So: if there is a God and that God is all powerful and all good, why is there so much suffering in the world?
In a short column we can barely scratch the surface of this question, so I want to simply raise some initial thoughts.
The first is this: the one thing nobody can do is deny that evil exists. That may sound obvious, but actually many belief systems go exactly that route.
Buddhism, for instance, traditionally has taught that suffering is unreal, a mere illusion. Whereas if atheism is true, everything is just particles in motion, rendering things like “good” and “evil” mere fictions.
This leads to my second observation: that evil has to be more than just a personal preference (mine, yours, or the majority’s).
Surely when we say that the suffering of the children of Aleppo is cruel, or that human trafficking is evil, we are doing more than merely saying “I personally don’t like it”.
The atheist philosopher, Arthur Leff, admitted this is a real problem for atheism – for if there is no God, moral claims cannot rise above personal preferences and thus to any claim that you shouldn’t do something, somebody can always respond: “Yeah, sez who?”
Yet Leff writes:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot – and General Custer too – have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.
In other words, in the very act of calling something “evil” we are crying out that the world ought not to be that way, that there ought to be justice, there ought to be fairness, there ought to be goodness.
But if there is no God, where does the “ought” come from? For all of their potency, questions about evil and suffering very quickly turn out to presuppose there is a God.
But if there is a God, what about suffering? Well, it occurs to me that when we are faced with evil and suffering what most of us want are not clever words but something done about it. Indeed, we admire those who dedicate their lives to alleviating suffering, who demonstrate compassion.
Compassion is a fascinating word. Comprising two Latin words, ‘com’ (meaning with) and ‘passion’ (meaning suffer), compassion literally means “to suffer alongside”. In other words, compassion means to do something about suffering at such cost to yourself, that you literally suffer too.
Now the Bible tells the story of a God who hasn’t just said something about suffering, or who has dealt in ivory tower theologies in a world of pain, but a God who, in the cross of Jesus Christ, has done something about evil and suffering – a God who has taken the worst that evil can do head on and defeated it at Calvary.
But that defeat came at great cost – and thus only in Christianity do we see a God of compassion. A God who not merely gives us the only means to name evil for what it is, but a God, who in Jesus, has given us the only means to deal with it.
I highly recommend Sharon Dirckx’s wonderful book, Why? Looking at God, evil and personal suffering (IVP) which explores what the Christian faith says about why suffering exists and how it is still possible to believe in a good God in the midst of pain and tears.
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