How can God be real when the world is so messed up?
Dan Paterson knows how personal trauma can challenge everything
No one who lives long on our planet remains unaffected by evil and suffering. As a boy of nine, my time came early. On our way home from a driving holiday, my family were driving through thick fog in the mountains. Dad was driving, my mum and sisters were sleeping, and I was awake in the back. Then it happened. Out of nowhere a truck pulled out in front of us on a single lane road, and what happened next is seared into my memory.
On that roadside as a boy, I had stumbled onto the most ancient and enduring objection to God.
Our van smashed into the truck, spun out across the road, and came to a halt spanning both lanes. Oncoming vehicles broke and swerved, only just missing me. My sisters woke screaming. My dad’s hands were frozen on the wheel in shock, covered in the butter that had broken free of the car fridge in the back when it hurtled forward. But what I remember most is an image of my mum, whose head had collided not only with the back corner of the truck as it crushed her side of the van, but also with the car fridge from behind. There she was, slumped over unconscious in her chair, her body eerily still, and her face covered in blood.
That was the end of my childhood. And without knowing it, or even being able to clearly articulate my thoughts and feelings, there on that roadside as a boy, I had stumbled onto the most ancient and enduring objection to God.
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You do not have to be an intellectual giant to understand the challenge that evil and suffering pose to belief in the Christian God. We intuitively feel the objection.
Given evil and suffering, it would seem that people are justified to walk away from belief in God. Consider atheism. How do you account for the evilness of evil, as well as our intuition that suffering is not how things ought to be? How do you explain the very thing that made you reject Christianity in the first place?
If the universe is amoral, and humans have no purpose or absolute moral goal, then no one is in a position to tell another what to do, and we cannot speak of moral progress or regress, only moral change. Ethics are reduced to a kind of cultural aesthetics or personal taste. Then why did we develop this intuition that something has gone wrong?
Can an all-loving and all-powerful God have good reasons for allowing evil and suffering?
The problem for this footing is that we don’t live as though ethics are relative. We live as though some things are truly evil. This is why running away from God in the face of evil and suffering is more complex than you might imagine. Far from disproving God, our apprehension of evil as a moral reality ends up perhaps pointing back towards God’s existence and an ancient story that speaks of this world going wrong.
Can an all-loving and all-powerful God have good reasons for allowing evil and suffering? In Genesis (the first book of the Bible), the Christian story begins not with a world gone wrong but with a world made right. God sets about to cultivate a garden paradise in a small corner of our planet, and welcome in our first parents to be his divine image bearers. We were made to know and be known, to love and be loved, and to build cultures that reveal God’s own creativity.
God wove natural and moral laws into the fabric of our universe. The natural laws we were commanded to discover, but God revealed his moral laws to us, granting humanity a choice. We could either trust God’s moral boundaries will be for our best, or we could break faith with God and seek to define good and evil on our own terms, embracing the consequences of that decision.
Now this might seem like an odd or unnecessary choice. Why put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden in the first place? But on this choice rests the dignity of what it means to be human. For choice is an inalienable component, not only of being morally responsible for your actions but of treasured realities like love. For love to mean anything it must be freely given. And this explains why a loving God might choose to make this world –not a world of robots who blindly follow orders, nor a world of coercion, where people reluctantly obey. No. God created a world where humans were free to love God and love others, or to do otherwise, which is the very definition of evil.
When our first parents broke faith with God, humanity fell from our high calling as image bearers of God and crashed into the moral fabric of reality, whereby we became broken. Suffering and death followed on as the consequences of evil.
Because we live now in a broken world, suffering happens to the most unlikely of people, and we can feel a sense of cosmic injustice. But even this kind of suffering, the kind we haven’t brought upon ourselves, can still serve a purpose, becoming a symptom that points all people to diagnose a much deeper problem – namely, that not all is right between Creator and creation.
We can see some plausible reasons why a good God may allow evil and suffering in the general sense. But for many, the general answers aren’t enough. They want a specific answer for why God allowed something to happen to them. And maybe we are reaching here for answers we cannot know, at least not now.
I remember when my son Josiah was 18 months old and I had to take him for a round of immunisations. The doctor and nurse told me he required two needles, which they would simultaneously inject, one in each arm. They had me sit Josiah on my lap, and as he stared up at me lovingly, they swiftly stabbed him. And as his little body winced with pain and his eyes filled with tears, he looked up at me confused and feeling betrayed. I was his daddy. I could stop them from hurting him if I wanted. And he knew that I loved him. So he couldn’t comprehend why I would let him suffer, why I wouldn’t intervene.
God doesn’t give us exhaustive answers but instead invites us to recognise and lean into his bigness.
Now, having a working knowledge of the dangers of infection and disease, I had good reasons for allowing him to suffer. But there is no way I could relate those reasons to him as a toddler. He isn’t capable of comprehending those reasons. And if that is true of an 18-month-old boy to his 30-year-old dad, how much truer is that of a finite human being when compared to an infinite and all-wise God?
So in addressing our particular “why” questions, God doesn’t give us exhaustive answers but instead invites us to recognise and lean into his bigness. But whether you will or will not do so depends on whether, like my son, you come to trust God’s goodness.
For although a loving God may allow evil and suffering as the cost of creating free creatures, that is not a cost he leaves us to bear alone.
Jesus addresses the felt need we all have in the face of evil and suffering. The four gospels of the New Testament give us a window into God’s response to our pain. And it is here that I have found Christianity to offer more meaningful answers and substantial hope than any other religious or secular story, where rather than simply explaining our condition, Jesus steps in to do something about it.
Jesus grieves over our suffering. In John’s Gospel, Jesus breaks down and sobs upon hearing news of Lazarus’s death. We are tempted to think that our compassion runs deeper than God’s, but the Lazarus story reveals God’s love. He is grieved by our suffering. One day we will realise that every tear we have shed for the suffering of this world was borrowed from God’s divine eye.
And here Jesus promises the eradication of evil and the eclipse of suffering. Jesus’ first round on the stage of planet earth was to deal with the evil in the human heart, making it possible for us to be reconciled to God and changed from within. This is why God allows evil to continue for a time, granting opportunity for none to be lost but all to come to repentance. But Jesus promised a round two – a return. And this second coming will bring an end to evil and a reverse of the curse under which we suffer.
Perhaps above all, God uses suffering to get our attention.
But that does not mean evil and suffering are beyond God’s reach to use for some present purpose. If we cooperate with God in our suffering, leaning into his promises, God works together even our pain to make us more like Jesus. Perhaps above all, God uses suffering to get our attention. As a pastor who has walked with people through all moments in life, I’ve come to see that we rarely ask life’s deepest questions when all is going well. But when life and death are in the balance, then the trivial fades and the truly important comes to the fore. These are often the moments of profound spiritual and personal growth.
Jesus is a God who has scars. He knows your pain. He is a God who has endured evil. And if God is able to take the worst evil committed against Jesus and turn it around to extend salvation to whosoever believes, then perhaps God can do something with your scars.
So in Christianity we have a God who is big enough to have reasons for allowing suffering that we cannot know, and a God who is good enough for us to trust even without all the answers. To me that sounds like good news in a world plagued by pain.