Why does God’s world contain pain and suffering? If there is a more challenging, painful question in Christian apologetics, I don’t know what it is. It is viscerally compelling for anyone who has ever suffered a loss, or watched another do so (which would be all of us). And it is logically compelling as well; why would an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving deity allow the sort of sadness and pain we see around us?
Ultimately, the best and most complete answer to the problem of pain comes at the cross, where our Father, as he so often does, answers us with a picture rather than a treatise. God may not fully explain why he permits evil to burn through his creation, but two thousand years ago he stepped into those flames with us and gathered the coals into his own arms. The mutilated hands and feet of the Son of God do not explain why suffering is permitted, but they do promise that there is a sufficient reason. And the empty tomb he left behind promises something else as well: an ultimate end for every sort of evil, whatever the reasons for its existence today. Like Job, the Bible’s other great picture-answer for suffering, the cross calls us to trust even when we cannot fully explain.
But our inability to comprehensively explain the problem of evil does not mean we are without any answers at all. In fact, the Bible offers many pieces of an explanation which may be too deep and multifaceted for us to grasp in its totality. Today I want to explore just one of those partial explanations.
Suffering and sin both begin in Genesis chapter 3, and that is not a coincidence. The wages of sin is death, Paul warns us (Rom 6:23), and “death” in the Bible is more than a description of the moment our soul leaves our body. Suffering is a part of death; the consequence of death’s cancerous introduction into ourselves and into the world. Therefore, understanding the existence of pain and suffering requires a careful look at sin.
Sin leads to death in two different ways. One is judicial. The King of kings is wiser, better, and more glorious than any human ruler. If we are disgusted by an arrogant teenager who ignores a lifeguard’s warning about a dangerous riptide, how much more disgusting is our own violation of the commands of a God whose wisdom, goodness, and authority infinitely exceed those of any human? Disobedience of God is sin, and God justly punishes sin.
But sin leads to death in another way as well. A plant cut off from the sun will die, simply as an inevitable consequence. Similarly, sin fatally cuts us off from our holy God and Creator, the “Father of lights” from whom comes every good gift (James 1:17). Sinful rebellion casts us out of the presence of God, and outside the presence of God is nothing—in the most absolute sense.
Which brings us back around to the question of why God permits suffering in the world. If a human life did not extend beyond the few decades between birth and death, compassion might find itself at odds with justice. While justice demanded death as punishment for sin, compassion would cry against the pain. But life is more than our time on Earth, so compassion and justice have no such quarrel.
If someone has a real and pressing problem, the most compassionate thing we can do is to make sure they know about it. What would we think of a doctor who threw away a cancer diagnosis, or a lighthouse which extinguished its beam to avoid worrying incoming sailors? Well, you and I and every human have a problem worse than any disease or shipwreck. Whether we realize it or not, our sin cuts us off from the only ultimate source of life and light and joy.
But even though every unsaved human is actually in mortal, eternal peril, we still inhabit remarkable, glorious bodies in a remarkable, glorious world. Who could look at a sunrise or dive into a mountain pool and feel that they were on the verge of eternal death? The beautiful gifts which testify of our Creator’s goodness can end up lulling us into a fatal complacency about the consequences of our rebellion against him.
In Proverbs 30:8-9, the writer asks God to keep him from either poverty or riches. He fears riches “lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?'” Even in a fallen world, the riches of creation unmixed with any suffering or pain would make it easy to live with similar disregard. It is hard to believe you are ill if you feel no pain; which means if you are ill, pain is a gift in disguise.
We need to remember that this is only a partial explanation. It cannot explain why God permitted sin in the first place, nor why particular people experience particular trials. Those are different questions for a different time. But living as sinful people in a fallen world, we should thank God that the painful consequences which justice demands are also a compassionate warning that all is not well—a warning which can point us to the One who entered fully into our world of sin and suffering in order to blaze a trail back out of it, forever.