Question from a Site Viewer
I’m a 16 year old Christian that is inquisitive and seeking the Lord and I’ve got a question.
What are you supposed to say to somebody who says, “What kind of a ‘loving God’ allows millions to die of starvation and disease every year? And what kind of a ‘caring God’ creates a place called Hell for eternal torture of His precious subjects?”
If I say He has a reason or that there is a purpose for everything He does, it doesn’t matter; the question is still left largely unanswered. This has always been a trouble for believers, and undoubtedly you’ve been faced with such a question.
Thank you for your question. Many apologists and theologians have addressed the issue of why the goodness of God and the presence of suffering are not incompatible; using different approaches and sometimes with mixed results. Some solutions are particularly troublesome in that God Himself teaches us that we should help those in need when we have the ability to do so (Proverbs 24:11-12; see also Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 58:6-7; Luke 10:25-37; James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17-18). If this is the action God requires of us, then does He hold Himself to a different standard?
I do not have a definitive answer to your questions. But I will share with you some thoughts. First, I raise the issue of whether it is possible that suffering occurs because God is displeased with us. Let me clarify. I am not positing a theory that all suffering is because of God’s displeasure. It is not. Nor do I read Scripture to support a view that those who suffer are somehow worse morally than the rest of us. This is not a them vs. us situation. Rather, it is a God-seeking-relationship-with-us situation.
God’s goodness is not separable from His love. His love is a relational love; a love that finds pleasure when it is reciprocated and finds displeasure when it is spurned (Jeremiah 12:7; Hosea 11:7-8). Many people hypothesize a God who is the benevolent and detached rich uncle, a God who loves us just the way we are and accepts us unconditionally whether or not we ever give Him a thought. Such, however, is not the God of Scripture. God created humans to love Him, and this remains the great command (Matthew 22:36-38). When humans fail to respond to God’s love by loving God, they, in a figurative way, slap God in the face. See the graphic language of Hebrews 10:29. When humans persist in choosing not to respond to God’s love, they withdraw themselves from the protection of that love and God withdraws Himself from protecting them. Thus, in Deuteronomy 32, we find God’s response to the waywardness of Israel was to withdraw (vs. 19-20) and see what would happen to them. In Romans 1:24, 26, 28, we find that God’s response to the waywardness of humanity is to give them over to their own desires. Bad things happen when God withdraws His hand of protection from us (Deuteronomy 31:17; 2 Kings 21:11-15; 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; 15:2; Job 1 & 2; Psalm 104:27-29).
Moreover, we affirm that much of the suffering in the ancient world was due to God’s displeasure. The first cataclysmic suffering of humanity came at the hands of God in the flood (Genesis 6-8). God brought judgment on Egypt through a series of 10 great plagues, again because of His displeasure with the enslavement of His people (Exodus 3:7-10). God brought judgment on the Canaanites because of their iniquity (Deuteronomy 12:20-31; 18:9-12). God promised to bless Israel if they would follow Him but He also promised to bring a whole series of judgments on them if they turned away (Deuteronomy 28). And He did, as the prophets tell us. Over and over in Scripture we see a linkage between cataclysmic disasters and God’s displeasure. And God has not changed (Psalm 102:27; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8). Jesus, when faced with the dreadful treatment by Pilate of some Galileans, was asked the question whether His listeners supposed that those who died were worse sinners because they had died (Luke 13:1-2). Jesus’ response was that they were not, but that all would likewise perish if they did not repent (Luke 13:3). Jesus links suffering to a failure to repent. Jesus makes the same linkage in relation to a natural disaster in Luke 13:4-5. We know that the last cataclysmic suffering of humanity likewise will come at the hands of God due to humanity’s failure to repent (Revelation 6-19).
Accordingly, it should not be a novel ideal that perhaps suffering happens because God is not pleased with us. Goodness detached from love might respond with protection despite persistent waywardness. But goodness bound up in love does not. A parent who deeply loves a child will not withhold discipline from the child. A God who deeply loves humanity will not stand aside and wait until the whole world has been overrun with violence. Rather, He intervenes, allows targeted destruction, so as to preserve some semblance of humanity on the earth. And always He seeks people to draw near to Him. Unfortunately, it often takes disaster for people to reach out to each other and to turn to Him.
I also believe that there may be other, perhaps related, reasons for suffering that are compatible with a good God. There is suffering in this life that is due simply to the fallen state of the world. Job says that a man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7). The whole world groans and travails in pain (Romans 8:22). God could intervene to prevent such suffering. But He finds a greater good in choosing to suffer with us. As He says in Isaiah 63:9, in all their afflictions He was afflicted. He enters into our sufferings. Jesus groaned in His spirit at the suffering of Mary and Martha and outwardly wept (John 11:33-35). Shared suffering often creates close social bonds. Communities are formed in response to disasters. If we define humanity in terms of shared community, then humanity itself is benefited by suffering. A life free from suffering tends to be a life without great meaning. We often seek out those who have suffered to gain wisdom from them.
There is also suffering that is not from God’s displeasure and is unrelated to the general fallen world. Job suffered because of a direct attack by Satan even though God was pleased with Him (Job 1-2; 42:7-8). Many of God’s saints have suffered. Christians are not immune from cancer, tragic accidents, crimes, persecutions, and death. Jesus, God’s own special Son, suffered greatly, but His suffering resulted in saving us from our sins. I believe that the sufferings of believers likewise are redemptive (2 Corinthians 4:17; see also Romans 8:18). Our momentary suffering not only works for us future glory, but often becomes the very means by which we are transformed into the image of Christ and the light of Jesus Christ is shown to a darkened world.
Accordingly, there are many reasons why people might suffer that are fully compatible with a good God. And, for those who speak of the innocent children who die in suffering, we need to remind the world that sometimes when people die, it is not as it appears. Their death is sometimes God’s way of preserving them from greater evil (see 1 Kings 14:12-13; Isaiah 57:1-2). If we believe that children under the age of accountability go to heaven when they die (which I believe, see http://truthsaves.org/doctrine/infants.shtml), the death of such ones may actually be a means by which God saves them from the bad consequences of their own potential future choices, the bad choices of others, or great distress.
But this brings us to your second question. If God allows the young to die to preserve them from making bad choices as adults, then why does not God have all die young so that none would go to hell? Why would a good God ever allow anyone to go to hell?
In my view, the existence of hell and the goodness of God are not incompatible concepts for a couple of reasons. First, God is the good judge and gives perfect judgment. I think intuitively everyone has a sense of the need for justice. When an individual simply for the fun of it sadistically, systematically tortures a little child over a long period of time leading to the child’s gruesome death, none of us believes that justice is served by simply putting the torturer to death. We have a sense that there is no response in this life that would be adequate to do justice for the injury caused to that little child. In such case, I have heard many people say that the person should rot in hell. When asked what should be done with Hitler, many people have a similar answer. Hell seems to be a fit punishment for some people.
The problem of hell arises mostly when we speak of people who are our friends, our family, or those whom we think of as not that bad of people. But perhaps those who go to hell are not as good as we think. If I were married to a spouse and my spouse treated everyone very nice and did nice things for everyone, but totally ignored me and would not even acknowledge my existence, would my spouse be a good person? What if I had become badly burned and scarred in saving my spouse’s life in a fire and her response was to ditch me because she no longer found me attractive? Would anyone consider her a good person? Is it not the same with our relationship with God? People may be good to those around them, but if they treat the God who gives them their very life, who died on the cross to redeem them . . . if they treat Him like dirt, are they good?
Second, I continue to believe that those who go to hell get exactly what they want. They did not want God and so they do not get God. The fact that with God comes heaven and all that is good and right means that in spurning God, they also are spurning heaven and all that is good and right. It is their choice. But then how can they complain if they get what they want, an eternity without God? And make no mistake, that is what hell is. I believe, but cannot prove the point, that those in hell, even if they were given a choice to choose God and heaven, would continue to reject both. One only has to observe human nature to understand that no matter how bad things become, some people will continue to choose the bad over heaven (Revelation 9:20; 16:9, 11).
Some would raise yet another question. If this is the way it is, then would not we be better off if humans never existed? How can a good God create a world where some will choose to end up in hell? But there seems to me to be an answer to this as well. Is it not good for God to create man to enjoy the goodness of eternal life with God? And if this is good, then should God have forgone this good in order to avoid the bad of those who choose to reject Him? How do we weigh the goodness of heaven against the evil of hell? Would we deny pleasure to some in order to prevent pain to those who themselves choose eternal pain over eternal pleasure? (I realize to some this argument does not fly because they do not think that people have a choice in salvation. But I am a firm believer that they do, and I think Scripture clearly calls all to that choice [Acts 17:30].) Is not the surpassing greatness of heaven of such overwhelming good that it dwarfs the problem of those who choose hell?
In some ways, the situation is not unlike a small community. We know that in almost any small community, someone will commit a crime and be sent to prison. Should we therefore ban everyone from having children in that community because some will suffer in prison? Would we not say that the good that comes from children is so much greater than the evil of those who choose a life of crime that it is good to have children? If we grant this, then I think we have granted the premise of heaven and hell as being compatible with a good God. What is true in a small community is also true for the entire world. The choice of some to choose a life spurning God and despising His values does not undo the far greater value of those who choose to seek God and serve Him. Just as it is good for there to be children in the example of the community, so it is a good for there to be people in the world even though some will choose to follow a life of crime against God.
There is much more that could be said on the subject. Many have written about these issues. What I share with you are simply some of my thoughts. I trust they will aid you in your effort to address these issues and point people to the One who wishes to save them from sin and its associated suffering and bring them into the eternal kingdom.
May the Lord Jesus continue to guide you as you seek to walk with Him,
a fellow servant,