The question of suffering has exercised philosophers and theologians for centuries. The issue has always been: “If God is good and almighty, he would not allow his creatures to suffer, and there would be no evil in the world.” However, the statement of the question is problematic, for it presupposes that we can determine what a good and almighty God should do. The answer of the Christian is not to philosophize about what God should do, but to ask what God has revealed about himself in his Word.
Before I explain further, I should point out that atheism has no answer to this question. According to atheism, the entire universe is the result of a random movement of molecules over countless billions of years. During that incredibly long period of time, life forms supposedly emerged from non-living chemicals (no scientist has demonstrated how that is even possible), and by means of a long process of “natural selection” (commonly called “Survival of the Fittest”), we have arrived at the present state of affairs with man at “the top of the evolutionary tree.” However, man is only “at the top of the tree” because he is the most advanced and developed life form, not because he is the most significant or the most important. In fact, man is, according to the atheistic worldview, of no greater significance than a tree frog, an elephant or a slug.
To you, your mother or your friend might be more significant than a slug, but you, your mother, and your friend have no transcendent meaning if atheism is true. If atheism is true, the impersonal, indifferent universe does not care that you exist. Your life has no meaning beyond the few years you exist here, and after you are gone you will return to the earth to be “worm food,” until another life form comes along to take your place. Therefore, if you, your family, and even millions of your fellow humans suffer and die, it has no real significance. Unless you are famous (or infamous)—and most of us are not—no one will remember that you existed one hundred years after your death. You might exist in the records of a government bureaucracy from which you will eventually be deleted, or you might exist in the memories of your descendants—if you leave any—but in the grand scheme of things your life is basically meaningless.
Given such a worldview, why even care about suffering? Why devote your life to alleviating suffering? Why try to make the world a “better place”? As one man put it, “If you decide the purpose of your life is to discover a cure for cancer and I decide the purpose of my life is to discover the tastiest doughnut, the universe really doesn’t care one way or the other. The same goes for the guy who decides the purpose of his life is to get as much pleasure as he can at other people’s expense, even if it causes immense suffering. It’s all ultimately arbitrary” (James N. Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity? [Christian Focus, 2016], p. 100). Atheist Richard Dawkins expressed it in these words, “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).
Therefore, the question of evil and suffering is not really a “question” for atheism. “Evil” (especially moral evil) presupposes an absolute, transcendent, objective moral standard. If it is not “evil” for a cat to kill a mouse (because morality is a meaningless concept for a cat), then it is not “evil” (if atheism is true) for a man to kill another man, especially if killing that man gives him an “evolutionary advantage” over other men. If evolution is true, then why should a man be subject to moral norms, while a cat is free to kill mice without being judged as “evil”? What makes a man’s life any more valuable than the life of a mouse? Why do we punish manslayers as murderers, but we reward mice-killers as “pest control experts”? And if it is not absolutely, objectively wrong to kill one man, why is it absolutely, objectively wrong to kill many men, or indeed a whole race of men?
The answer many atheists give is that society functions better with moral standards or that something becomes morally wrong when society judges it morally wrong. However, why should we care how society functions? If one man is meaningless, why should a society of men have any meaning? Why should human society have any more meaning than an anthill or a beehive? If there is no absolute moral standard according to which all men are judged (i.e., the law of the transcendent Creator God), then cannibalism is acceptable in one society and “honor killings” are acceptable in another society simply because “society” approves of them.
The Christian’s answer to evil and suffering is to begin with God, who is absolutely and perfectly good. Since God is good, the creation he made was good. In fact, when God created the universe, he surveyed his handiwork and “Behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The original “goodness” of the creation included the absence of suffering and death. Death, which atheists view as natural to the evolutionary process and struggle for life, was not part of the good creation that God made.
Therefore, when an atheist denies God because of the presence of suffering and death in creation, he must first understand that such suffering and death were not part of the original creation. (He must not complain about the creation that God made, but join the Christian in lamenting what the good creation has become). In addition, mankind was good, which means that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were created in holiness and righteousness in God’s image. Adam and Eve were not created sinners: they became sinners. (Incidentally, this means that Christians do not accept the idea of macroevolution, because we do not accept the idea of death before sin. Therefore, the world is not the product of billions of years of evolution, but the creation of a good and wise God).
Adam and Eve were created as God’s friends in a covenant relationship with him, which is why God made them rational, moral creatures (unlike cats, dogs and chimpanzees, which are not rational, moral creatures, and which therefore cannot relate to God). The Heidelberg Catechism—a document written at the time of Reformation—explains it this way, “God created man good, and after his own image, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise Him” (A. 6).
Adam and Eve did not remain for long in the state of holiness in which God had created them. They disobeyed God in the famous account of the “forbidden fruit.” That act was not a matter of “just eating a piece of fruit.” God had given them a rich abundance of fruit in the Garden of Eden. They enjoyed fellowship with him. He even walked and talked with them in the cool of the day. When God placed a restriction on their activity (do not eat of this one tree), God was perfectly righteous. As the Creator, God determines good and evil, not man. The devil persuaded Eve to assert her “autonomy” and to decide good and evil for herself, and Adam quickly followed her. That act was deliberate rebellion against God.
From that one act, all forms of evil, suffering, and death have entered the creation: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (Romans 5:12a). God in judgment inflicted death upon the creation because of man’s rebellion. The blame or guilt for sin, suffering and death must not be imputed to God, but to man, the rebellious creature. All human evil, from theft, to dishonesty, to violence and murder, as well as war, genocide and every form of depravity and vice, is a consequence of Adam’s first transgression.
That does not seem fair to many people, for why should the sin of one man, Adam, affect the whole human race? The answer is found in the identity of Adam. Adam was not merely one individual. God created him to be the head of mankind, not only the biological or organic source of mankind, but also the legal representative of mankind. In other words, Adam represented all of us in the Garden of Eden. We might not like that representation, but it does not change the fact. When Adam fell into sin (and it was not so much a “fall” as a deliberate “leap”), we fell with him, which is why we are all subject to death: “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12b). “For by one man’s disobedience [the] many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19a). And do not think that, had you been there, you would have fared better than Adam. You would not. Your representative in Adam was perfect: he was created in the image of God, he had the warning of God ringing in his ears, and he had every incentive to remain faithful to God, and yet he fell. You would have done the same.
But there is also mercy in God’s dealings with Adam. The headship of Adam prepared for a better headship. Jesus Christ represents his people. What he accomplished in his perfect obedience, suffering, and death was not for himself: it was for the people whom he represented. “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall [the] many be made righteous” (Romans 5:19b). If it is unfair for God to punish all men for the sin of one representative (Adam), then is it also unfair for God to save all believers for the obedience of one representative (Christ).
Why, then, is there suffering and death in the world? Why is there evil? First, because God is righteous, and a righteous God punishes sin. He punishes sin in various ways, at different times, and to different degrees in this life, and finally and fully on the day of judgment and in the world to come. Second, evil, suffering, and death serve God’s purposes in history: God’s main purposes are the gathering of his people and development of evil in the world, with the ultimate purpose the glory of his own name. Third, suffering serves the salvation of his people, for God uses suffering to test, purify, and prepare them for the life to come. Fourth, God used the greatest of all evils, the death of his Son, to accomplish salvation, to purchase forgiveness of sins and eternal life for his people. If God ended evil today, he would have to destroy all human beings on the face of the earth. But God is not ready to do that, for important events planned by God must still occur before the end can come. The world has not only an origin, but also a goal, another truth denied by atheism.
God does not give us specific answers to the problem of specific “evils.” Why did this war occur? Why did that person suffer in that particular way? Why did my friend get that disease? Why did that man commit that atrocity or crime? Christianity provides general answers that we can apply to the big questions. Atheism, which views all things including “evil” as meaningless, does not.
God commands you through his Word to cease your rebellion against him, to turn from your sins (whatever they are), and to believe in his Son. If you continue in your sins, you will perish, but the one who believes will receive eternal life.
The Bible says, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets, Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you (Acts 13:38-41).
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.