THIS POST WAS EDITED 4 JUNE 2017 TO INCLUDE REFERENCE TO TERRORIST ACTIONS IN THE UK IN WESTMINSTER, MANCHESTER AND LONDON FOLLOWING SIGHT OF A TWEET THAT ASKED – “IF GOD IS ALL POWERFUL, WHY IS HE ALLOWING ALL THESE THINGS TO HAPPEN?”
THE ANSWER BELOW IS HOPEFULLY NOW MORE COMPLETE, BUT IT STILL DOESN’T START BY CONSIDERING TERRORISM, INSTEAD WE NEED TO START WITH THE ORIGINS OF THE QUESTION…
Science is good at answering the ‘How’, ‘What’, ‘When’ questions, just not so great on the ‘Why’ ones – especially ‘Why is there suffering?’.
The origin of the question ‘Why?’ is interesting. Humanity’s first question could well have been, ‘Why am I here?’ It opens some obvious follow on questions for us, of purpose, origin… and in the end, suffering. Philosophy would have started early in the origins of humanity and possibly is the precursor for scientific experiment. The ‘If, then’ process would have started from a ‘Why?’ question. A sort of: ‘Why do I feel sad when someone I know dies?’ type of question might prompt the beginning of a solution… ‘If they are attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, then they often stop living’ helps a bit, but it still doesn’t answer the question ‘Why?’ In fact it just prompts another ‘Why?’ – why are there sabre-tooth tigers?
‘Why?’ is the question that flows easily from a child’s mouth, and the one that becomes so frustrating as it gets repeated after every answer, bringing the well-known parental final retort of ‘because I say so!’
Is the answer to the suffering question simply the consequence of an unfeeling process of molecules and DNA – science without purpose? In which case the answer to ‘Why?’, as atheist Christopher Hutchins puts it, like a frustrated parent reduced to a statement to close-down the seemingly pointless questioning, is that ‘the cosmos barely bothers to return the answer, ‘Why not?”
Or instead of a nihilistic view that we simply exist and then we don’t (a perspective that humanity has never been comfortable with), can we move towards the seemingly genetically built in alternative of finding meaning in the Universe, for which the word ‘God’ starts to become helpful. In time we will all still come to the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’, or maybe its logical extension, ‘Why does God allow suffering?’
So, for the sake of approaching the question of suffering, can we agree for a short while, to put aside the question of ‘Is there a God?’. The question sort of presumes He (or she) might.
As a Pastor, I know that I am potentially about to tread on sacred ground whenever I am asked the question, “Why does God allow suffering?”
Before I delve into this, I want to acknowledge that this question is for some academic, almost a parlour game to out what they feel is the religious person’s lack of credibility in a scientific world. Often this question is simply seen as their trump card to win an atheistic argument. But for many, it is sadly a very real question that comes from a point of hurt.
Therefore, while we will explore the question here, I want to acknowledge the real pain many feel. While some understanding can help, the circumstances they have had to face and remember will always be a truth they need to live within. My hope is that in reading this we may be helped to offer some insight, at the appropriate moment, to anyone who has this very real question. But the starting point for those times, will never be the technical answer. It is to simply hold them as friend and join them in it for a while. Sometimes, the question doesn’t yet need an answer, sometimes we just need a friend.
Therefore, with that as a backdrop maybe we can explore some answers, and they are plural, that depend greatly on the type of suffering being considered.
Theologically the first group can be resolved relatively straightforwardly, those related to what many would call a ‘Fallen World’. A world where there are consequences to actions, short and long term and how we might expect God to intervene, and maybe why he can’t. The second group, those within the ‘Natural Disaster’ category, can then be considered and this is an area where science has become helpful. And there is a third category – it is much smaller once we deal with the two above, but a very real group. These are the ‘we just don’t know why’ group that can only often be helped by joining in the pain our friend or acquaintance is feeling.
Let’s start our discussion with some of the theological and move towards the science in a bit, that will probably still bring us back to a ‘Why?’, because that is what science seems to do…
The Fallen World category of suffering
So much suffering can very directly be placed at the feet of an individual, group or society taking decisions that have consequences. These may be intended to harm, as in the case of a Terrorist, or sad conclusions to foolish decisions by someone choosing to do something stupid, such as drinking and driving. We know that God hasn’t caused these. From the Nazi regime, through recent terrorist actions – all the way down to a local drunk driver mounting a pavement and hitting a child, these and all in between can be seen with cause and effect glasses.
Our actions have consequences, and when we deliberately choose to do something foolish, dangerous, immoral or illegal then, if it results in someone else being harmed in anyway, we know there will be some blame coming our way. For the deliberate intentions to harm by an individual, there may have been false understanding or teaching, ideological or religious, behind their actions – but the choice to act is the individuals. This does not mean those who inspire or teach false or hurtful ideologies are safe – the requirement for those who teach others has a high bar for care and accountability. They will also be held to account, whether for misleading a nation as happened with the Nationalists in pre-war Germany under Hitler or as some now falsely do by manipulating religious beliefs in vulnerable people.
But if we are honest, these most heinous crimes by the leaders or perpetrators isn’t normally behind the question of “Why does God allow suffering?” – we can easily see that God isn’t causing these things, instead it is fallen humanity. But what about intervention? In these circumstances, we can see the cause, what we want to know is ‘Why didn’t God intervene?’ It’s a question that often comes from a place of uncertainty about his existence. If there is a God, we want him to be both loving and just. If he is cruel we don’t want to know any more about him. So why doesn’t he intervene?
In trying to answer this very reasonable question, it prompts a prior one – at which point do we want him to intervene?
For the drunk driver, is it as he starts to drive after drinking at the pub? When he gets into the car? When he accepts the extra drink from his friend? When he arrives at the pub or when he opens his Facebook and sees the invitation? If that person was us, when would we want God to intervene in our life? When would we want our choices to be curtailed? Do we want them curtailed at all?
As parents of children, at very early stages of their lives, we help them to walk at home. But for those first strolls outside we know reins can be a good idea. They don’t know what lies beyond a river bank or the curb of a road, so we limit their realm. But as they grow, they learn and become adults who understand the world. Parents soon discover the need to give freedom so that choices can be made. They won’t all be good, but they will learn from all of them. If we do a great job as a parent, we will have enabled them to become caring pro-active members of society who consider their actions with the full knowledge of all the potential consequences.
How would they feel, at maybe 35 years of age with a family of their own, if we were to intervene in their choices? We do know either from experience or observation how people respond to parents trying to fit ‘reins’ to their grown-up children.
And here’s the rub. We know that human parents should give free will choices to their children eventually. It is good for the relationship and it also enables mistakes to occur from which learning can come – but hopefully if we’ve raised them well the mistakes won’t be huge. And it is the same for God as our father. By giving us all free will, God self-imposes his own handcuffs. It’s an act of love on his part to give us free will.
These types of suffering, placed under the banner of a Fallen World, a world where we make bad choices or deliberately choose wrong ways, they are not the fault of an angry God, rather they illustrate a God who loves us like a parent. In which case, they’ll be severely punished by him right? Because they got caught out or because the consequences of their choices caused actual harm? What about the decisions we have all made at some point and been lucky enough not to have hurt someone? Everyone at some point does things for the wrong reasons. While we might not put ourselves on the same grade as Hitler, at which point do we want punishment to start?
This is where, briefly, we will move into the Christian viewpoint. This is exactly why Jesus came. The Bible tells it far better than I can in St Paul’s letter to the Roman church (from the new Living Translation Romans Chapter 3 verses 23-28):
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.
The Natural Disaster category of suffering
What about the Tsunamis, the earthquakes and floods – why doesn’t God stop those? They are effects of nature not humanity and we see such great pain and death within these events. ‘Why doesn’t God stop this suffering?’ It is a reasonable question.
While I have had insights and thoughts that enabled me to deal with these issues, explaining them has always been harder as I wasn’t a scientist. I understood the intrinsic nature of the issue and could answer it, but I was greatly helped by Robert White’s book, ‘Who is to blame?’ that explores these exact circumstances from a position of science, geology and human geography.
I’m going to try and simply discuss Nature before we get to Disaster.
We know from science that we are privileged to have this blue planet at all. As the boundaries of physics have been explored, the probabilities of creation working at all from a Big Bang are known to be infinitesimally small. When it comes to the major causes of disasters- earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions – we can forget how necessary they are for life itself.
If it wasn’t for volcanoes, our atmosphere wouldn’t have had enough carbon dioxide to allow the planet to warm up. Their eruptions brought, and still bring, life giving minerals and deposits to the surface levels. Flooding from anticipated and extreme rainfall has historically enabled the rich soils and fertile plains for agriculture. Without earthquakes, there would be no movement of tectonic plates, that like eruptions also enable a steady supply of nutrients. Without the plates moving we wouldn’t have the mountains that bring diversity to our earth. That shaping of the continents is also in part the driver for the large ocean currents like the Gulf Stream that moves heat around the Atlantic areas. Without the Himalayas the annual monsoon wouldn’t happen that enables millions to be fed as both the water and the deposits bring life to soils that would otherwise be infertile. Over the centuries that annual flooding process has been broadly predictable and lifestyles and houses evolved to enable farming and living, just as has happened with the Nile and many other major river systems around the world.
This brings us towards the second part, the word Disaster in the phrase Natural Disaster. The occurrences have been natural, but are they all? And, what about the disasters?
We saw in the first category of suffering, those of a Fallen World, that human choice and free will were intertwined. Robert White illustrates the massive increase in Natural Disasters with multiple graphs. Initially of the rise in the number of and reporting across just the last century with astronomic increases from the 1950’s. In part he acknowledges this is due to improving communications – we just hear about more than we did before – but he also draws us to global population increases.
From 1950 to today the world’s population has almost tripled from around 2.5billion to c.7.4billion. (c.1.5billion lived in rural areas in 1950. There is now a flat peak of around 2.8billion living in rural areas showing no further growth) Future population growth is expected solely within the cities, with figures approaching 9 or 10billion globally by 2050. It was in 2007 that the world changed… to more of us living in cities than in the countryside.
Many of the natural disasters (and I’ll keep using that term for these types of events even if they aren’t really natural) are to do with poverty. We know how to build homes that stand up in earthquakes, but the poor can’t have them. We know how to protect people from flooding when its predictable, but with man-made Global Warming, sea level rises and vastly varying rainfall patterns, that predictability is being diminished. At the major flood of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, warnings were given and the city evacuated. Of the 1,836 people who died there in 2005, it was mainly the infirm and poor living in the unfashionable, low level, swampy areas – who were also without transport. And of course our new rainfall variation doesn’t just bring flood, but famine too.
Sea level rises from the warming can become catastrophic. It is anticipated that currently 100 million people live within 1metre of sea level. Estimates of sea level rise up to 600mm are not unusual. The wealthy can move inland, but a 1m rise would apparently remove over a million square kilometres of land. It is estimated if the Greenland ice cap were to melt that a 7m rise in sea level is possible.
Because of the move of populations to cities, there is every chance of an event such as earthquake killing more people than ever.
This one pair of maps from Robert White’s book help illustrate part of the growing problem we face if we do nothing. The top map shows cities of greater than 5 or 10 million populations. The lower map shows where earthquakes have been recorded over the last 1,000 years to have killed 10,000 (open circles) or 100,000 (closed circles)
The choices we make as society over time affect where we choose to live, or if in poverty, where we have no choice to live.
If we continue to have an increasing population we have a choice too about how we protect them. Some of that is to do with technological answers, much is to do with equality. As individuals we may not feel there is much we can do, but as communities we choose our politicians for varying reasons. It will need a global political will to start to reverse the trend, over a long and sustained period.
‘We just don’t know why’
This is now a very small part of the total of human suffering to explain, and we can reduce it a little further. It is to do with the area of illness. Before we move into this section, the Bible is very clear that illnesses are not imposed on anyone because of their behaviour – as some sort of divine judgement. But, we also know that some illnesses can be consequences of lifestyle choices. Some say that a very large percentage of the UK National Health budget would be reduced significantly if we all took better decisions in our lifestyles. The links from smoking to cancer are well known. Similarly it’s the case with diet and some forms of diabetes or blood pressure issues.
There are also environmental factors that cause illness that won’t be the individuals fault at all. Living in a slum because you are poor next to a fume spewing industrial plant is not going to be your fault, but you may well suffer from a wide range of potential maladies. There will also be less easily attributable environmental issues that may be discovered to be a cause of the rise of certain types of cancers for instance. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the links between asbestos and lung disease were acknowledged.
The increase in elderly dementia and cancers can in large part be put down to our improving health service. We just live longer and eventually we do die of something, so the failures in our bodies that are becoming more prevalent may just never have occurred a hundred years ago.
But we do get left with a category of illness that is hard to explain. These are the ‘we just don’t know why’ category. Why should a child get leukaemia at five years of age? Why do people in their 20’s get cancers normally only in older people or for those with obvious environment or lifestyle reasons. All I find I can say for this now very small group is that we all feel the pain of this type of suffering. It is hard to find a reason, but in time, maybe we will. The one thing that a Christian faith can offer is the certainty that it was never, and will never be, God’s intention to cause these things and that our Father in heaven loves us, understands our pain and will be in it with us.
Returning to the ‘God’ question
I said earlier that the science would probably still bring us back to a ‘Why?’, because that is what science does.
Humanity has a great deal to answer for regarding suffering. We can’t answer every single event, but we can see patterns. There will always be questions that can’t be resolved, but there are some underlying principles that could help this earth, if we really wanted to engage with them – and they are Biblical principles.
The first is that we are only stewards of all we have. This earth isn’t ours and any wealth we have has only come from what we didn’t own in the first place – we are only given it to use wisely.
The second is that a loving God can only act in such ways because he is loving. The cause of our problems, on the whole, are consequences of our actions.
Thirdly consequences can bring about hurt, injury or death and we all do things that have some consequences somewhere.
Fourth we all are born, live and die.
Fifth, if there is a God, and our constant questioning of his (or her) role suggests we struggle with the concept of nihilism, of just being molecules without purpose, then it is worth exploring what a loving God might be like and how we build any sort of relationship with him. St Paul, again in his letter to the Romans in Chapter 1 verse 20 (New Living Translation) said:
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Sixth, Jesus said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Maybe that is where we might find the ultimate answer to suffering that could be worth exploring, maybe it could be helpful to consider investigating the one the Bible also refers to as The Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ to find the wisdom we need for all the ‘Why?’ questions.