Answering an Atheist: A Theology of Suffering
Reformed Free Publishing Association
Christianity has a specific theology of suffering, which is absent in atheism, for in atheism suffering is basically meaningless. In fact, in atheism everything is meaningless: people might try to find meaning, but there is no real, objective meaning to anything, if, as atheism teaches, all events are random. Our lives were not planned if there is no God who planned them. Our lives are simply the result of the random collision of molecules. That is what I mean by meaningless. If you want to believe that the random collision of molecules that brought about your existence has meaning, you are free to do so. Nevertheless, such a position is incoherent and illogical.
God has a purpose for suffering. We do not always know the exact purpose in every case. If we did, the Bible would be intolerably long. The Bible gives guidelines and principles. I crave your indulgence while I seek to explain.
First, God has inflicted suffering on the creation, and especially mankind, because of sin. Death exists in the world because of sin. And the miseries of this life that lead to death occur because of sin. Because all people (including Christians) are sinners, all people (including Christians) are subject to suffering. Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin and foolishness. (God does not always spare us from the natural consequences of our actions). Sometimes we suffer because of the sins of others. In those cases, God uses the sins of others for his own purposes, which are often hidden from us. In reality, however, there is no such individual as an “innocent victim.” As far as our relationship to the Creator is concerned, we are all guilty, as I have explained before by the doctrine of the fall. Therefore, whatever suffering we experience in this life, whether in our bodies or in our souls, we deserve from the hand of a righteous and just God. The Bible is full of examples of God punishing people for their sins, whether directly or by a human instrument. For example, God drowned the population of earth in Noah’s day, and he rained fire and brimstone upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God did that, he was punishing the wicked as an example of what all men deserve. Jesus addressed a similar issue when he was asked about a terrible atrocity that had taken place in Jerusalem:
There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:1-4)
Notice how Jesus responds. First, he denies that the victims of that atrocity (a violent bloodbath caused by Pilate’s soldiers) were greater sinners than the other people of Jerusalem; second, he denies that those who were crushed under the rubble of a tower were greater sinners than the other people of Jerusalem; and third, he warns that worse judgment is to come so that the people must repent (turn from their sins) or they will perish. A similar statement could be made about people who are caught up in violence and natural or manmade disasters today: they are no better or worse than those who were spared; therefore, you better repent or you will perish in the judgment.
In fact, the only truly innocent person who ever suffered was Jesus: he did not deserve to suffer and die, and nobody suffered as much as he did. But the beautiful truth of the gospel is that he was willing to die for sinners who did and do deserve to die. His death on the cross pays for the sins of God’s people, so that they, even though they still suffer in this life, will not perish in hell forever.
Second, the Bible teaches very clearly and without any embarrassment that God not only “allows” suffering to happen, but that he sends it. A god who is not in perfect control of all events, including events, even sinful acts, that cause suffering, is not the God of the Bible. Such a god is not sovereign; therefore, such a god is not worthy of worship. The people in the Bible believed and understood this. They attributed all events, great and small, good and bad, to the hand of God. Christians who believe the Bible and take its message seriously believe this too. Two examples from the Old Testament will suffice. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, suffered terribly: his brothers sold him into slavery into Egypt; and he was falsely accused and imprisoned. But look at how he understood it, for later he said to his brothers:
I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life . . . And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive (Genesis 45:4b-5; 50:19-20).
Notice what Joseph does: first, he does not deny that his brothers’ deeds were evil, for they “meant evil;” but second, he looks beyond those deeds to the hand of God: God, who is sovereign over all things, so directed the lives of Joseph and his brothers to bring Joseph to Egypt. Joseph is not angry or bitter against God for this: he worships God and acknowledges God’s great wisdom in so directing events in his life. God is blameless, for God has directed the sinful deeds of men without being corrupted by them. God has not changed. Even now, he is directing all events, even the sins of men.
The second example is Job, who is legendary for his suffering. In one day, Job’s property was plundered, Job’s ten children died, and Job was afflicted with a terrible disease. The culprits were marauding bandits and Satan, who used a wind to destroy the house of Job’s children and smote Job with painful boils. Nevertheless, Job looks beyond the human, natural, and Satanic causes, and sees the hand of God. Job’s response is one of faith:
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly (Job 1:20-22).
Had Job seen only the instruments that God used, he might have angrily cursed the thieves who stole his cattle; he might have cursed “his bad luck” that the wind had blown down his children’s house; or he might have cursed Satan who sent the boils. Worse, he might have cursed God, which is what Satan wanted him to do, and which is what Satan expected him to do. Instead, Job worshipped and blessed God.
Job’s faith in God was sorely tested, for even his wife encouraged him to curse God.
Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).
Job sharply rebukes his wife for her foolish words. His argument is clear—we receive good from God’s hand (as Job said earlier, “the Lord gave”). Therefore, we ought also to receive evil (as Job said earlier, “the Lord hath taken away”). Job understood that all things, whether good health or sickness, whether riches or poverty, whether children or childlessness or bereavement, whether life or death, come from God. The Christian who takes the Bible seriously believes the same thing. The unbeliever, who does not believe in God and certainly does not trust in him, is at a loss when tragedy happens to him. As a Christian pastor, I can come to my congregation when they face a terrible affliction and can remind them that the affliction is from God. If it is from God, there must be a reason behind it. To the Christian I can give the comfort that God uses affliction for the good of his children. There is no such comfort for the unbeliever who simply has to follow the philosophy of the atheist standard bearer, Richard Dawkins:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical 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 universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life).
Third, the Bible teaches that God uses suffering for the good of his children. Now, let me be very clear—not all people are God’s children. Unbelievers are not God’s children. Only believers are God’s children. Jesus taught this when he confronted unbelievers in Israel: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (John 8:44). Unbelievers, therefore, have no reason to believe that God uses suffering for their good. Quite the contrary: God uses both prosperity and affliction for the destruction of the wicked. All the events in the lives of the wicked and unbelieving serve God's purpose to destroy them: "The Lord hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4). That is a terrifying thought, one which should make the unbeliever repent, lest he be destroyed in God's anger. Nevertheless, the New Testament is full of examples of how evil serves God's people, but one will suffice: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). If all things work together for good for God’s children, nothing is excluded. Disease, persecution, bereavement, and death, and everything else—these work together for good. No wonder that the apostle Paul can make such a triumphant conclusion:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39)
In fact, according to the New Testament suffering prepares the Christian for future glory, so that the Christian is able, even through the tears, to rejoice in hope.
And if [we are] children, then [we are] heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:17-18).
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
The Christian certainly feels pain when he is afflicted—if he did not, it would not be affliction. When his body is ravaged with disease; when he loses a beloved family member to death; or when he is persecuted, as is the case with many Christians in various parts of the world, he weeps, and he even cries out to God. Nevertheless, he does not weep without hope. God answers his prayers, not always with the deliverance he expects. Often God answers by giving the Christian strength to continue to confess God’s goodness in a hostile and often perplexing world. God gives the persecuted the strength to face death. The atheist weeps without hope, for the best that he can hope for is that his suffering will come to an end at death, perhaps alleviated with modern medicine. However, such a hope is in vain, for when he dies without God his worst (and eternal) sufferings are about to begin!
That is why I urge you to believe in Jesus Christ. By his death and resurrection he has conquered death. Only in Christ can we make sense of suffering. And only in Christ are sinners, who deserve to suffer forever, delivered and brought into everlasting glory. One day, we must all die. We might die peacefully in our sleep, or of a horrible disease, or even in a violent manner. God has many instruments by which to call us out of this life. But then what? For the believer, death is a passageway into eternal life; but for the unbeliever, death is a trapdoor into hell. Only Jesus makes the difference. I would love to tell you more about Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.
Limerick Reformed Fellowship
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland.