I’m sure you have all heard someone say something to this effect: “How could I believe in a God who lets all this suffering happen?” It is what CS Lewis called “the problem of pain”, and it is a serious concern for a lot of people.
However, I think that these people have often gotten it backward in their heads, so let me see if I can put it back right for them.
First, let me start with a story. I coach basketball occasionally; did it some in college as a student and now am coaching my son’s youth team. One of the things that has always bothered me about coaches is pulling people out for foul trouble. You see, if a person starts getting close to fouling out, the coach generally sits them down. But what would happen if they kept playing? In the worst case, someone…fouls out. And sits out. They lose minutes. So when the coach voluntarily pulls them from the game, the coach is putting on his player the very same penalty that he fears by letting him play in foul trouble! In other words, if you let him keep playing, maybe he will foul out and miss minutes. But if you pull him out, he will definitely miss minutes. You are imposing the very thing that you are afraid of happening. Remember this, as we will get back to it.
Invariably, the argument from suffering goes like this: if God is good, then He would want to prevent suffering; if God is all-powerful, then He could prevent suffering; suffering exists; therefore God is either not good, not all-powerful, or does not exist.
And so, the person argues, they will not believe in God. Instead they will be atheist.
Ah….right. Let’s think that through now.
So as the atheist, what exactly gets better about suffering? If you are an atheist is suffering less unfair? Does suffering go down? Isn't it still unfair that earthquakes destroy Japanese innocents? Isn’t it still unfair that in the Philippines’ overcrowded orphanages must turn four year olds out on the street (and just hope they can survive) in order to make room for the babies that have been given up? Isn’t it still unfair that in Africa people live for generations without even having sufficient water access? Isn’t it still unfair that Americans are literally eating ourselves to death while much of the globe starves? Isn’t it still unfair that tornadoes kill little kids and tsunamis wipe out entire villages?
Suffering does not go away just because you reject God. Nor does life start getting fair.
So what did you gain from being an atheist? Nothing. Life is still just as messed up as it was to begin with. What did you lose? Much – for the Christian has the worldview that explains suffering. Now I do not mean those Christians who simply try to explain suffering away and say it is ‘for the greater good’. No, suffering is real and it often isn’t fair. But what the Christian can tell you is two important things: (a) why suffering exists in a fallen world, and (b) that there is hope on the other side of the suffering.
You see, by rejecting God, the atheist does not remove suffering or make it one ounce more fair; what he does do, though, is take away his hope for it ending.
Do you see the similarity to the basketball coach? The atheist feared that, if he believed in a God who allowed suffering, then maybe God isn’t good and might not treat him (the atheist) properly. If he believes in God and sees suffering, he fears that he must believe either God to be evil or God to be impotent. He fears that there is no hope.
And so he doesn’t believe in God. He chooses to reject Him. And what does He get? The cold mechanical evolutionary theory…the only other house on the block. And it is completely empty of hope.
Out of a fear that he wouldn’t like God’s allowance of suffering, he rejected Him; and instead he embraces evolution, in which suffering is inevitable and never ending. He sat himself out for foul trouble. He took upon himself the very penalty (lack of hope) that he feared might happen.
Christians (at least, knowledgeable Christians) will not try and feed you some line about how all suffering is good. They will tell you, though, that natural disasters are birth pains—the earth groaning to be made over new and pure. They will tell you that suffering is the natural result of depraved people competing over incentives to make their own lives selfishly better in some way.
With regard to suffering, the Christians are the only game in town which can approach suffering as it truly is. We can’t fix it, but we can tell you why it happened, help you to endure it, and share with you the Hope that is on the other side.