One Reason Why a Compassionate God Permits Suffering

Crying on a couch

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.

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Born Bound Together

Crosses

According to the Bible, the sinful choice of one man and his wife thousands of years ago profoundly affected the course of every human life after theirs, including your own. As Romans 5:12 puts it, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” I Corinthians adds simply, “in Adam all die” (15:22). We are not told the precise mechanics of the Fall and how it influences us today, but the Bible makes it clear that it had debilitating effects on every one of Adam’s race. We still make real, meaningful choices whether to sin or not, but there is something ugly in us now; something which draws us to sin and keeps us from the innocence and freedom that Adam and Eve enjoyed, and squandered, in the Garden.

It’s easy to feel this isn’t especially fair. Why should the rebellion of the first humans have any effect whatsoever on their descendants? Why should we be tied to our first parents by metaphysical cords which pull us down after them?

On one level, the answers to these questions are simply a mystery. Perhaps we will understand more in Heaven, or perhaps not. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which God’s ways are not our ways, and our finite understanding cannot plumb the depths of divine wisdom. But that does not mean we cannot understand at all. As we consider why the Fall had such a morally crippling effect on the rest of the human race, something which appears at first glance to be another, different “problem” with the biblical account is both clarifying and comforting.

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Trusting God About Sin and Atonement

Statue with scales of justice

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

According to the Bible, human sinfulness cuts us off from a holy God, so he sent his Son to take on a human life and then die to redeem us from our sins. Through faith, Christ’s blood atones for us so we can come into the presence of God as children rather than condemned sinners.

For those raised in the church, such a summary of the gospel may seem natural and intuitive, but for many unbelievers it is a weird, incomprehensible idea. Some even see it as unjust and wicked. Why would God demand blood before he forgave? And how can one person’s blood, shed two thousand years ago, have any effect on my own, personal guilt anyway?

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Apologetic arguments aren’t perfectly conclusive, and that is okay

Apologetics is the reasoned, intellectual defense of the Christian faith, responding to attacks and offering reasons for belief. It is the responsibility of every Christian to be ready to offer that sort of thoughtful answer to the best of our ability (I Peter 3:15), because such conversations are one tool that God uses to draw unbelievers to himself, encourage the faith of his people, and create a culture that is open to the claims of Scripture.

In many ways, everyday modern Christians can be better prepared for difficult apologetic discussions than any previous generation. The printing press and the internet offer Christians almost limitless resources to equip ourselves to challenge false ideas, and that is a very good thing. However, I am afraid that this wealth of resources has contributed to false and counterproductive ideas about what apologetic arguments can and should accomplish. Our misunderstandings are leaving Christians disappointed and frustrated after their exchanges with unbelieving skeptics, while the skeptics themselves evade the force of arguments that should be much more effective and compelling.

The basic problem is that many of us–whether consciously or not–expect apologetic arguments to be conclusive; to leave no rational option but belief. We expect the cosmological argument to leave absolutely no defense against the idea of a supernatural creator. We want our design argument to demonstrate the need for a universal designer with perfect clarity. We are disappointed if a historical argument leaves any room whatsoever for doubt about whether the modern Bible reflects actual first-century events. And so on. Because we know that God exists and the claims of Christianity are true, we expect our arguments to conclude with the same sort of conviction we ourselves feel. Unfortunately, there is both a theological and a tactical problem with such inflated expectations for our apologetic arguments.

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‘The way is narrow’: Thinking about exclusivism

When sharing the gospel, Christians are guided by Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person; it doesn’t matter if you follow the Quran better than I’ve ever followed the Bible; it doesn’t matter if you are a devout Hindu or Buddhist or Jew: the only way to be saved is through belief in Jesus Christ. When Jesus said “the way is narrow that leads to life,” He was putting into words what most of us have felt at one time or another when witnessing.

For anyone who has really challenged an unbeliever with the truth that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), it’s hard not to feel intolerant, especially in a culture where “religious exclusivist” is an epithet practically on level with “racist.” Worse, it’s hard not to feel that God Himself might be a little–dare we say it?–closed-minded. If He wants to save people, why be so restrictive? Why not throw open the gates all the way?

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