Why Does God Permit Suffering to Continue?
Hi, Dr. Craig—
Thanks first of all for your amazing body of knowledge and willingness to use it so fervently to serve the Lord. It’s an immeasurable encouragement to so many people.
I’m currently listening to one of your talks on evil and suffering at Cambridge. (The talk was at Cambridge, not the evil and suffering, necessarily). There are two Biblical passages that have been a tremendous help to me personally in wrestling with the problem of evil, but I’ve never heard them discussed in any forum on the topic. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on each.
One, it seems to me, addresses the question of “Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?” And the other addresses the critical question “How should one respond to the experience of evil and suffering?” (Even if convinced that God is the direct cause!)
The first is the Parable of the Weeds from Matthew 13:36-43 / 47-52:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn’.”
[And then Jesus explained further ...]
Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”
So the short answer, to me, seems to be that God has not yet vanquished evil and suffering because he is still building the Kingdom, and the process of doing so is not mutually exclusive from the evil and suffering we experience.
The passage addressing the second question is from Amos 4:6-11:
“I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. “I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up. People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. “Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. “I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD.
I mean, wow! Talk about tough love. God doesn’t mess around. I know that someone like Richard Dawkins might point to a passage like this as an example to justify the view that the God of the Bible must be some type of monster that even if real is not worthy of worship, but I think they would tragically be making the same mistake that the Israelites in this passage made. I find it to ironically be an incredibly hope-filled example of God’s love expressed through discipline, and a clear instruction of what everyone should do when faced with hardships of any kind, even if we can’t understand them or are convinced that God himself is the cause: return to Him. Sadly, it seems that so many people do exactly the opposite.
In any event, a lot more can be gleaned from both passages in terms of how they do or don’t address the problem of evil and suffering. If you have the time and think it might be helpful to other readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these scriptures.
Best regards, thanks again for all you do to defend and build the Kingdom.
These are, indeed, thought-provoking passages, which I reproduce here, not so much in order to comment on them, as to share them with our readers, who may find them a stimulus to thinking biblically about the questions you raise.
I agree whole-heartedly with your take on the parable by Jesus. We cannot consider the problem of evil and suffering apart from purposes of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has rightly said,
The key to the history of the world is the kingdom of God. . . . From the very beginning, . . . God has been at work establishing a new kingdom in the world. It is His own kingdom, and He is calling people out of the world into that kingdom: and everything that happens in the world has relevance to it. . . . Other events are of importance as they have a bearing upon that event. The problems of today are to be understood only in its light. . . .
Let us not therefore be stumbled when we see surprising things happening in the world. Rather let us ask, ‘What is the relevance of this event to the kingdom of God?’ Or, if strange things are happening to you personally, don’t complain but say, ‘What is God teaching me through this?’. . .We need not become bewildered and doubt the love or the justice of God. . . . We should . . . judge every event in the light of God’s great, eternal and glorious purpose (From Fear to Faith, pp.23-24).
It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people freely into His Kingdom. Take a look at a missions handbook such as Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World. You’ll find that it is precisely in countries that have endured severe suffering that evangelical Christianity is growing at its greatest rates, while growth curves in the indulgent West are nearly flat.
Take China, for example. The growth of the church in China in recent decades has been without parallel in history. Johnstone believes that Communism actually prepared China for the reception of Christianity by stripping away Buddhist and Confucian presuppositions from the culture. One can imagine people wondering during the dark days of Mao why God allowed the weeds of Communism to grow and devastate the field. God had longer range purposes in view.
When you think about it, the history of mankind has been a history of suffering and war. Yet it has also been a history of the advance of the Kingdom of God. A chart released in 1990 by the U.S. Center for World Mission documents the growth in evangelical Christianity over the centuries by plotting the number of evangelical Christians per non-Christians in the world. (These figures don’t include under either category people who are just nominal Christians.) In the year 100 there were around 360 non-Christians for every evangelical Christian in the world. By the year 1000, there were 220 non-Christians for every evangelical in the world. By the year 1900, there were only 27 non-Christians per evangelical Christian. By 1950 that number had shrunk to 21 non-Christians per evangelical Christian. And—get this—in the year 2000 there were only 7 non-Christians for every evangelical believer in the world! Even if you add in all the nominal Christians as well as legitimate subjects of evangelization, that still means there are only about 9 unbelievers to be evangelized for every believer.
According to Johnstone, “We are living in the time of the largest ingathering of people into the Kingdom of God that the world has ever seen.” (p. 25). It’s not at all improbable that this astonishing growth in God’s Kingdom is due in part to the presence of natural and moral evils in the world.
So when people ask, “Why doesn’t God just remove all the suffering from the world?”, they really have no idea what they’re asking for or what the consequences might be. The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could send a ripple effect through history so that God’s reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or perhaps in another country. Only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free persons toward one’s pre-visioned goals. You have only to think of the innumerable, incalculable contingencies involved in arriving at a single historical event, say, the Allied victory at D-day, in order to appreciate the point. We have no idea of the natural and moral evils that might be involved in order for God to arrange the circumstances and free agents in them necessary for some intended purpose, nor can we discern what reasons God might have in mind for permitting some instance of suffering to enter our lives. But He will have good reasons in light of the purposes of His Kingdom.
The parable also reminds me of people who ask why, if God knew who would believe in Him and who would not, He would not just refrain from creating those persons who would reject Him. Jesus says tearing out the weeds may also tear up the wheat as well. In other words, if God were to refrain from creating those who He knew would not believe, then we would have in the place of this world a whole new possible world, and people who are saved in the actual world might turn out to be unbelievers in the new world! You can’t just pluck people out of a possible world to improve things because in so doing you are now dealing with an entirely different possible world, in which the people may act completely differently than they do in the first world. (The philosophically initiated will recognize that I’m talking here about God’s middle knowledge and which worlds are feasible for Him to create.)
As for the passage from Amos, it reminds us powerfully, as C. S. Lewis put it, that Aslan is not a tame lion. People often say that God doesn’t send suffering into our lives but merely allows it. The passage you cite explodes that fairy tale! The ancient Israelites didn’t understand that the calamities that befell them were in fact a severe mercy sent by God for their own well-being, but their intransigence short-circuited the good purpose that God had in mind (cf. Revelation 16. 9, 11, 21). The author of Hebrews in the New Testament reminds us that God disciplines every son whom He receives. Even though it is painful rather than pleasant, God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12.18).
You’re right that non-Christians, used to a Santa Claus God, won’t understand this sort of tough love. But it’s not really difficult to grasp when you reflect that any finite amount of suffering is worth enduring in order to gain eternal joy and to avoid eternal ruin. Paul says, “ For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look, not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Paul understood that the length of this life, being finite, is literally infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life we’ll spend with God. The longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life will shrink by comparison toward an infinitesimal moment. That is why Paul could call the sufferings of this life a “slight, momentary affliction”: he wasn’t being insensitive to the plight of those who suffer horribly in this life—on the contrary, he was one of them—but he saw that those sufferings are simply overwhelmed by the ocean of everlasting joy and glory which God will give to those who trust Him.
So our reaction in times of suffering should be, as you say, to turn to God in faith and dependence on His strength to get through. When God asks us to undergo suffering that seems unmerited, pointless, and unnecessary, meditation upon the cross of Christ and his innocent suffering for our sake can help to give us the strength and courage needed to bear the cross that we are asked to carry.